Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hey, would you lay off newspapers when they maik mistakess?

My former paper in Fargo was a popular topic on the web yesterday for an unfortunate reason. The Forum published a picture of two guys shoveling, with a straightforward caption describing the action. It identified Gene Masseth and Haywood Jablome in the pic. Good ol' Haywood.

It's the plight of papers. A reporter can write an exposé about the local mayor's corrupt behavior and everyone yawns. A columnist pens an emotional tribute to a little-known teacher who died and everyone turns the page, seeking the comics. But a mistake makes it in and everyone's in on the fun. God, how could the paper be so dumb! Stupid mainstream media!

During my time at newspapers I had my own share of cringe-inducing moments. North Dakota State hired a new football coach following the 2002 season, a former Nebraska assistant named Craig Bohl. Shortly after the hiring we ran a mug shot of Bohl for a story (mug shot in this case meaning the small pics papers run, not the frowning portraits police use).

Unfortunately, the picture we published was of a different guy named Bohl, a small-town business owner or local politician, I forget. Probably a nice guy. Middle-aged. But he definitely wasn't the newest football coach at NDSU. The next day at work, I opened my email to see a note from the sports editor, with the simple, yet jarring subject line: Wrong Bohl.

Six years later, those two words - Wrong Bohl - remain a punch line for me and my former co-workers who worked at the paper that night. We were eventually able to laugh about it, but at the time we were mortified and embarrassed.

It wasn't just big mistakes that had readers picking up their phones to complain. A paper can print tens of thousands of words each day, with nary an error. But it's almost a guarantee that if a grammatical mistake appears somewhere in that mass of words, a retired English teacher who's lonely and still bitter about being forced out of her job will take pen to paper. She'll helpfully write, in perfectly maddening handwriting, "In your paper's story about the local baseball team's trip to Cleveland, your reporter wrote, 'their going to be in the city for 10 days. Please note the incorrect use of their. It should have been they're. As an English teacher who taught for 45 years in our underfunded public schools, it troubles me that the local newspaper - which I assume is populated with college graduates and people who care about the English language - would allow such a mistake to be published. It's a disgrace. I'm making a copy of this letter and sending it to each editor and the publisher, in the hopes that this mistake will not occur again."

We accept the written lashing like a chastened student, promising to do better.

For a short time I worked as a night editor at the paper in Worthington. Part of the job involved checking the page negatives that came off the printer at the end of the night, specifically the front page. It was a last chance to catch a typo, and I was also supposed to check to make sure all of the color separations came through correctly.

One afternoon, as I settled into my desk, optimistic about the day ahead of me, my editor approached, a tight smile adorning his face.

"Have you seen the paper?"

"No, why?"

He held up the front page. The main picture on the page, which was a large, four-column color picture, was...no longer large. And wasn't four columns. And no longer in color. It was black and white. Tiny. And it now sat at an angle on the page, as if a third-grader had glued it there the night before as part of a project called "My first newspaper." I'd apparently failed to properly check the color corrections, leading to the printed fiasco that my editor forced me to look at while shame crippled my body. I apologized. What else could I do, except hope it wouldn't lead to a firing.

Everyone in publishing has similar stories. Sometimes it's the fault of an editor, sometimes a production person or faulty printing press is to blame. The hope is that no one loses their job or receives an angry, taunting email from a reader.

Mistakes can be innocent, like the ones above, or the result of a joke gone horribly wrong. Often, when waiting for a story or information to come in, editors and reporters will put dummy text in until the real stuff arrives. Unfortunately, sometimes the dummy copy runs. The most famous example of this, a legendary incident that's sort of like Babe Ruth's called shot in that everyone's heard about but hardly anyone's ever seen it, is the paper that ran a caption that went with a picture of a junior high basketball team. The smiling youngsters, beaming with such pride, included the normal Joe Johnson, Ben Smith, and Some Fucker.

That story's told around campfires to frighten new copy editors, a harsh warning about the dangers of frivolity and typing while bored. It's not the type of lesson they teach in college. I guess instructors assume students will know that Some Fucker should never run in the paper. That's easy. But maybe they should start teaching the dangers of Haywood Jablome.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Look, Mom, it's Tommy! He's running onto the field at the Yankees game!

One of the great things about YouTube is that it offers a glimpse at a world unknown to regular television viewers. For years now, stations instantly cut away from the on-field action if some attention-seeking idiot sprints onto the field and runs around in circles until security finally tackles him. They do this because showing it would apparently encourage others to do the same thing and they don't want to give attention to someone for committing a crime. Fortunately, the majority of these people are harmless. The only damage they do is to their family's sense of pride.

As security drags the drunken man or woman off in cuffs, the announcers will either ignore it completely, aside from a somber announcement that "security is escorting a gentleman off the field," or they'll ridicule the person, explaining, "Some moron has decided to show off for his friends and will now spend the night in jail. Good."

I have no problem with TV refusing to show these people. Attention-starved people with below-average intelligence already litter our televisions on reality shows; we don't need them polluting sporting events.

Still, there's something exhilarating about watching a fool run onto a baseball field or football field in an attempt to...what? Impress a girlfriend? Win a dare he made with his frat buddies? Prove his parents wrong when they told him he'd never amount to anything in his life? For a few seconds, these people must feel like Barry Sanders breaking free into the open field. They now know what it feels like to be cheered by 30,000 people. Sometimes they'll dodge overweight security guards, who must get some secret thrill out of the chase as well. Most of the time those workers simply watch the stands for drunken brawls.

Here's a chance to beat up a real-life hippie!

Baseball attracts most of these people. Rarely does it happen in basketball, despite the fact it'd seem to be an easier accomplishment. Perhaps baseball fans - who these days sit through games that last anywhere from three and a half hours to six hours - simply have a longer time frame in which to get drunk. I'd like to see a study that analyzes when people run onto a field. My guess is it'd be in the later innings of a game, or in the second half of a football game.

What's the thought process? Does the idea first spark in the fifth inning? Does the guy think about doing it, but fears telling his friend? Then, sometime in the bottom of the seventh, as he's chugged his seventh beer, he finally broaches the subject:

"Hey, wouldn't it be cool if I ran onto the field?"
"No, it would be. You remember, I was a pretty good running back in high school. Ran for 875 yards senior year. Made all-conference."
"That was 11 years ago. And 85 pounds ago."
"Dude, I'm just saying. I could do it and probably last a minute out there before they'd catch me. Look at those security guys."

The guy's friend forgets the conversation. He passes it off as one of those ideas drunk guys always come up with; it's the same thing he does when his friend openly dreams about opening a bar, a real "kick-ass joint, we can even have live music."

Then, in the bottom of the eighth, it happens. The guy jumps over the short wall down the right field line. As his friend breaks out the camera phone so he can document the carnage for the buddies back home, the guy's off to the races.

You know the drunk guy you hate sitting next to at a professional sporting event? The one who doesn't shut up or sit down and screams at every player? That's the type of guy who runs onto the field. The only good thing is he's no longer bothering you.

Here, then, are some of the finest examples of just how stupid humans can be.

Dodger Stadium. Who says LA fans don't get excited? Here, the crowd acts like Kirk Gibson just took Dennis Eckersley deep again, as they wildly cheer a man getting hammered on the field by security staff, presumably after he got hammered in his seat. Boy, do fans love when someone runs onto the field. It wakes them from their slumber. "Look, dad, someone's zig-zagging across the outfield while four people in jackets chase him! Who-whooooo!" It's the same type of reaction that happens when a beach ball gets tossed into a crowd. Inexplicably, it becomes the highlight of the game for many people as they bounce it to and fro. On the beach, the sight of a beach ball would elicit yawns. But in the stands at Camden Yards? Chaos! Excitement!

And would anyone blame the security staff or police officers if they took a few extra shots at these cretins? Especially when five or six of them gather around the sprinter. It'd be easy to toss in a few jabs to the ribs. Guy's drunk, he's not going to remember anything.

Wrigley Field. This one is labeled Drunk Cubs Fan Gets Tackled on Mother's Day. Again, pure joy from the crowd. Are they cheering the man or the security people who took him down? And would they be anymore excited if the Cubs finally made the World Series? I say no.

Here's one of New York's finest citizens, running around the old Yankee Stadium. The same grass Mickey Mantle used to patrol! The highlight is toward the end, when one of the fans can be heard saying, "He gets to go into the dugout too!" as if police are taking him there so he can give Joe Girardi some advice about whether to bring Rivera in during the 8th inning or save him for the 9th.

Here's the same guy...from a different angle. One known photo exists of Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address, and it came seconds after he completed the speech. Yet, at least two videos exist of this guy shedding his shirt and tacklers as he makes his way around the basepaths at baseball's most hallowed cathedral.

The one below is an old-school version. From 1989, at a Steelers game. Shirtless, pantsless, shoeless. Thankfully, the guy's wearing boxers, not briefs. He falls on the old, tough artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium, the type of turf that's all but disappeared today because it was so brutal on players, and, most likely, fans.

Speaking of the Steelers, here's Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison taking justice into his own hands with a fool from Cleveland. This might also be why more people run onto the field at baseball games. Who's more likely to take out a runaway fan? A right-fielder, or a middle linebacker?

It's not like this is just a problem on the coasts. Not even Minnesota - with its presumably nice security guards and nice fans - is immune. In this one a pair of fans, egged on by their testosterone and low IQs, venture out together. One even makes it to home plate - he's safe - before a Red Sox bat boy flattens him, finally ending the fiasco.

Every year Sports Illustrated publishes a Where are They Now issue. It's always one of the more fascinating issues, as the magazine tracks down athletes and coaches from the past who have fallen off the radar. For the next issue, I hope they track down some of these people, or their brethren. Did any of them go on to become a CEO? Did any of them get promoted to head of sales? Did their hometowns throw them a parade, or present a key to the city? Most importantly, did any of them father any children? And if so, are their children as dumb as their parents?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Well, maybe Jon Koncak was worth more than Michael Jordan

I've read about 100 pages of a new book I got for Christmas, When the Game was Ours, by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, though sportswriter Jackie MacMullan handled the actual writing of the book. I read several chapters today while avoiding my dad's taunting phone calls during the Lakers debacle against Cleveland.

Remarkably, the book's managed to reveal new details about the players, details I didn't even know, though I thought I'd read pretty much every story and anecdote about each Hall of Famer. My favorite quote so far comes from Bird. Apparently, Bird's Indiana State teammates and Magic's Michigan State teammates expressed some jealousy about the attention each player received while in college, even though each player was nearly single-handedly responsible for turning the programs into national powers. When asked about the jealousy of his teammates, Bird said, "Somebody asked me once how I felt about all that. I told them, 'Hell, I'm jealous of them too. I'm jealous because I never got to play with a Larry Bird."

It's an amazingly arrogant quote, something that would be the subject of a special 2-hour episode of Outside the Lines on ESPN if Kobe Bryant said something similar about his teammates today. And it's also a perfect quote, the type of reply only one of the 10 best players in NBA history could get away with.

Later, in his early years with the Lakers, some of Magic's teammates also became jealous of the attention heaped on the young star. Much of it stemmed from the 25-year, $25 million contract he signed early in his career, a pact that was remarkable not for the money, but for the length. Although at the time, the money too - a million a year - was also fairly staggering.

Today of course someone making a million dollars a year in the NBA is probably a guy who plays about 5 minutes a game and is kept on the roster simply because he's a good chemistry guy and practices hard.

Who makes the most money in today's NBA? Kobe? Duncan? Shaq? LeBron? No, no, no, and no.

Tracy McGrady. $23,329,561.

This is the last year of his deal, meaning McGrady's days of seeing that type of money will be long gone when he signs his next deal in the Summer of LeBron.

It's obviously preposterous that McGrady is the highest-paid player in the league, but then again, Jermaine O'Neal is the third-highest paid player, so it's not the only deal that doesn't make much sense. But then, it's always been like that in the NBA.

Browsing through Basketball Reference is an eye-opening experience when searching out salary history.

Take the 1988 Chicago Bulls. The Bulls finished 50-32 that season as Michael Jordan averaged 35 points and five assists a game. That year he solidified his spot as a basketball legend, and a sporting icon off the court. Those results were good enough to land him the second-highest-paid contract on the team, as he made $845,000. The highest-paid Bull? Artis Gilmore, whose professional career had peaked a decade earlier in the ABA. Big Artis pulled in $863,00 that season.

Sticking with the late 1980s, the 1987 Lakers were one of the best teams in NBA history, winning 67 regular season games and the title thanks to a devastating fastbreak and Magic's first MVP season. Magic won the MVP, Kareem was still effective, and another Hall of Famer, James Worthy, averaged 19 points per game. So, of course, the highest-paid player was Michael Cooper. Granted, Coop was the Defensive Player of the Year. And he was a vital role player. But he should not have been pulling in $3,565,500 when Magic took in $2,500,000. I'm sure no one was jealous of Magic's contract that season.

Sometimes bad contracts literally destroy franchises, which is basically what happened with Seattle in the 1990s. The Sonics took the legendary Bulls team to six games in the NBA Finals in 1996. In several of those games, Shawn Kemp was the best player on the floor, despite the fact Jordan, Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen were sharing it with him. Seattle appeared set to contend for the next decade.

Then they signed a 7-foot stiff disguised as a center, who went by the name of Jim McIlvaine. Looking for a center in the Jon Koncak/Uwe Blab/Bill Wennington/Will Perdue/Joe Klein mold - tall, personable, pale-skinned, and bad at basketball - the Sonics inked McIlvaine to a seven-year deal worth $33.6 million. The previous season, Big Mac averaged 2.3 points and yanked down 2.9 boards per game. The move infuriated many of the Sonics, most notably Kemp. The star forward did make more than McIlvaine that year - $3.3 million compared to $3 million for McIlvaine - but he'd also been asking for an increase, which the organization refused to give him. At the end of the year Seattle dealt Kemp to Cleveland, assuring his career would become most notable for his epic weight gain and the number of children he sired. Seattle, meanwhile, faded from power. McIlvaine? Oh, McIlvaine was fine, finishing his career in 2001 with the Nets, a season that saw him make $5.4 million. That year he averaged 1.6 more points per game than I did for the Nets, appearing in 18 games.

Speaking of Jon Koncak, long before McIlvaine gave below-average centers a bad name with his outrageous contract, Koncak signed a famous six-year deal worth $13 million with the Atlanta Hawks. At the time, it meant Koncak made more money than Jordan, Bird and Magic, the only time his name was ever mentioned with those three. Koncak averaged 4.5 points per game in his career. The 1992 Hawks were a fascinating team. Not on the court, where they finished 38-44, but off it. Dominique Wilkins rightfully made the most money on the team, pulling in $3.1 million. Koncak was next with two million. Third? Blair Rasmussen, with $1.5 million. Blair Rasmussen, the seventh-leading scorer on the team, a guy who scored 9 points a game.

But then again, Blair was white. And seven-feet tall. In the NBA, those two qualifications often seem to be more important than a decent jump shot or rebounding skills.

So maybe McGrady's 2010 contract isn't so outrageous. We should just be thankful Joel Przybilla isn't the highest-paid player in the league.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bad wrap

As a kid we opened presents on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, visiting grandma's house on December 24 and waking up the next morning at grandpa's farm for more goodies.

In New York, we now open exclusively on Christmas Eve, primarily because Louise has the patience of a 2-year-old. It's a battle of wills just to keep her from ripping everything open a week before Christmas. I've accused her - and she's only offered vague and unconvincing denials in return - of actually opening up some of the presents when I'm not around and then re-wrapping them.

Actually, her denials probably are truthful, because it'd be impossible for her to recreate my wrapping, which has been the subject of mockery since the first time I presented her with a haphazardly taped, sloppily wrapped gift, which looked like it'd been put together by a dim-witted 5-year-old or an adult without opposable thumbs. My wrapping incompetence is the best defense I have against her opening up presents 10 days early.

I've never learned how to wrap a present properly. It's one of those skills that should have been picked up through simple repetition, but is impossible for me to learn. Sort of like how I still don't know how to blow a bubble with chewing gum. Or make a decent paper airplane.

I believe in the use of overwhelming force when wrapping a gift, beating it into submission through layers of decorated paper. Even if I'm simply wrapping a paperback book, I'll tear off enough paper to cover a TV. If there was a worldwide shortage of wrapping paper, I might reconsider the strategy. Folding down the top part, then the sides, I try my best to wrap it in such a way that it's impossible to guess what's hidden beneath. Whenever I see a wrapped gift from Louise or anyone else who has the dexterity to pull it off in a proper fashion, I always marvel at how little tape they use.

My god, the efficiency.

By the time I'm done, I'll have used maybe 15 pieces of tape, and even more have been lost during my pathetic battle. They are victims of my inability to properly tear it off the dispenser, so a one-inch piece gets tangled like a pretzel or ends up wrapped around my own finger instead of on the paper.

No matter how much paper I use, the inefficient wrapping ensures there's almost always a tiny opening where the present can still be viewed. Instead of perhaps altering my strategy, I'll simply rip off more paper to cover that spot. By this time I've grown frustrated, convinced the tape and paper somehow have a vendetta against me. Now I'm angrily taping, wrapping more and more paper around the tiny object, drowning it in layer after layer of snowman-covered material. Once finished, I now take pride in my accomplishment, holding it aloft, offering it up to the gods.

That's for square objects. Anything that's oddly shaped or soft or both of those things presents unique problems. Like a stuffed animal. Where do you even start? I start where I always do, with about 12 feet of paper, suffocating the cuddly beast. First the head, the torso, finishing with the feet. Because I don't want Louise to guess what it is, I'll add 10 more feet of paper. By the end, anything could be under that wrapping. All she'll feel is paper, when her fingers aren't getting stuck on the wayward tape that's popped up at different points.

Fortunately, not everything has to be wrapped. Now we have bags. Just stick the present in, close the bag and all wrapping worries vanish. But even those can cause problems. One of the presents I bought sort of fits in the largest bag we have, but not quite. Stumped, I debated stapling the top of the bag shut, but pictured the reaction from Louise: "Why didn't you just use the string to shut it?"

So that present got the wrapping treatment as well, a 20-minute exercise littered with curses and vows to take advantage of the gift-wrapping at all stores.

And now it sits under the tree, joined by its ugly siblings and the perfectly wrapped gifts from Louise, which are so well put together I almost feel guilty tearing the paper off. Now that I think about it, perhaps Louise's eagerness to open the presents has nothing to do with being excited about the gift. Maybe it has everything to do with ridding the world of my wrapping, at least for one more year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bringing the heroics of Alex Cross and Alex Delaware to life

This is a new book that readers of mysteries and detective stories should check out. It's called The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of their Greatest Detectives. Otto Penzler edited the book.

Penzler gathered many of the most famous names in crime writing - from Lee Child to Michael Connelly - and had the authors discuss the fictional heroes in their books. They produce a series of biographies about fictional people, with analysis provided by the real authors who brought them to life.

So, for instance, Michael Connelly reveals the background of Harry Bosch. Jonathan Kellerman talks about the religious beliefs of his crime-solving psychologist, Alex Delaware. And so forth. One of the featured writers is David Morrell, who created Rambo. Yes, the tortured Vietnam vet was a literary creation long before he became the subject of Ronald Reagan's fantasies. The only disappointment to me was that John Sandford's Lucas Davenport wasn't featured.

I liked the book, even though pop psychology studies and background sketches of fictional characters usually don't appeal much to me. The credit goes to the spotlighted authors for providing fascinating details about their characters.

What has always intrigued me is wondering what the real-life reaction would be to some of the more famous fictional characters, especially those in mysteries or crime thrillers. As a former newspaper reporter, I always wondered how some of these people would be covered, if they had to deal with ink-stained wretches on a daily basis.

Take Alex Delaware, who stars in two dozen books by Jonathan Kellerman. A psychologist by trade, Delaware spends his spare time tracking down depraved killers while helping his detective friend, Milo Sturgis. In the series, Delaware's been involved in a bizarre island experiment gone wrong, had various attempts made on his life, been the victim of an arson fire that destroyed his beloved home, and helped put away or kill countless psychos. Exciting life.

With those kinds of credentials, Delaware would almost certainly be among the five most-famous Americans in the country. We'd see him chatting with a maniacal Nancy Grace on a nightly basis, when he wasn't thoughtfully entertaining Larry King with his thoughts on Elizabeth Smart. Psychology groupies would stalk him, throwing their panties at him while confessing their innermost secrets.

Time magazine once put Bill Bratton on its cover. Bill Bratton. All he did was help lower the crime rate in New York City in the 1990s. Bratton pulled it off with innovative crime-fighting ideas that warranted a magazine feature, but he wasn't exactly a superman. So what kind of coverage would Delaware receive, a guy who has single-handedly killed serial killers and solved countless cold cases? Like I said, he'd be one of the most famous Americans. If he got really lucky, his dating exploits might make the pages of People magazine. 

How about another Alex, James Patterson's superhero Alex Cross. In the increasingly ludicrous plots, Cross has: stopped the kidnapping efforts of madman Gary Soneji, stymied a pair of killer friends who operated on each coast, dealt with a British serial killer (the worst kind), battled a cult of vampires; been betrayed by former friend Kyle Craig, an FBI agent gone very, very bad who cryptically calls himself The Mastermind; fought several people going by the name The Wolf; traveled to Africa to solve murders on that continent; and dealt with Ku Klux Klan killings. And while all this is happening, someone killed his wife, another lover turned out to be an evil kidnapper who was executed by lethal injection, a girlfriend was kidnapped, and the aforementioned Mastermind brutally murdered a female partner. 

Yet he keeps plugging away, as seemingly optimistic as ever. Remarkably Cross keeps finding success with the ladies, though any woman capable of Googling him would stay 20 miles away at all times, fearing a bizarre and painful death at the hands of a Cross rival.

It's not just books, of course. Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher solved murder mysteries for a decade on Murder, She Wrote, despite living much of the time in a tiny Maine town that should be immune from the brutality of the real world. It's probably a nice town, but who in the hell would want to live there when a resident is murdered on a weekly basis? And how does a kindly old woman keep stumbling into these situations?

How about Perry Mason? Forget the portly lawyer's remarkable record of success. Take a look at the LA district attorney's failings. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden's careers as prosecutors basically ended the moment the O.J. jury returned with the not-guilty verdicts. Yet every week, the hapless, bumbling, confused Hamilton Burger found himself on the wrong end of a murder case. Not only did Burger lose, but Mason proved that the prosecutor arrested the wrong person. Blame the police, I suppose, but how did voters not oust Burger after, I don't know, the 324th case he lost? How did he not get disbarred?

And, more importantly, what would Nancy Grace and her special guest Alex Delaware say about Burger?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sorry, Trevor Ariza is not the 29th best LA Laker ever

ESPN just launched a Los Angeles-based version of its website, espnlosangeles.com, as the omnipresent network continues its quest for world domination. In the not-too-distant future, there's a decent chance espnjanesvilletheoneinminnesotanotwisconsin.com will join the fray, providing 24-hour coverage of JWP athletics and the Hay Daze softball tournament, along with columns analyzing the best bar in town for catching a drunken fistfight.

As part of the launch, writer Dave McMenamin cobbled together a list of the 50 greatest Los Angeles Lakers of all time, making a point to specify that these players are the best in LA Lakers history, meaning the old Minneapolis greats like George Mikan don't qualify. Like all lists, it confuses and sometimes infuriates anyone with knowledge of the subject. And like other Laker rubes, many of the choices left me wondering about the qualifications of the man chosen to compile the list. Here's the story with the list at the bottom.

Top 5:
5. Jerry West. 4. Shaquille O'Neal. 3. Kobe Bryant. 2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 1. Magic Johnson.

Not much to quibble with there. I might put Kobe ahead of Kareem. Kareem did win five titles with the Lakers, but for the last one in 1988, his contributions were way down, although he did, as always, come through in the clutch with the game-winning free throws in Game 6 of the Finals. Until last year people criticized Kobe for never winning a title without Shaq, but no one ever uses the same argument when talking about Magic or Kareem, though each played with a teammate who might have been the best ever at his respective position. Not to mention another Hall of Famer, James Worthy, filled the lanes alongside them for a decade. And even though Shaq won three titles compared to just one for West, it seems wrong to have a mercenary such as Shaq ahead of a guy who will probably be buried in purple and gold. Shaq's bitter departure from the team counts for something. So bump Mr. Clutch ahead of the Big Whatever He's Calling Himself Now.

Wilt Chamberlain comes in at number 6, ahead of Elgin Baylor at number 7. If we're talking career, sure. But as a Laker? Wilt played five seasons with the Lakers, and in one of those - 1970 - he only played 12 games. Worse, that season ended with Wilt watching helplessly as Willis Reed scored the most important four points in NBA history at the start of Game 7 of the Finals, sparking the Knicks to a rout. Wilt's days of ludicrous numbers were in the past by the time he came to LA; his highest average in a season where he played more than 80 games was 20.7 points per game. Baylor, meanwhile, famously retired just before the Lakers went on their historic 33-game run in 1972. Hne ever did win a title, foiled by the ever-evil Boston Celtics. But before that he played nine seasons in LA, not including the 1971 season that saw him play just twice. He averaged 27 a game as a Laker, along with 13 rebounds. Along with West, Baylor was the face of Lakers in the 1960s, a decade that saw them dominate everyone in the NBA but a certain team from Boston. He's gotta be ahead of Wilt.

Byron Scott comes in at 10, Gail Goodrich at 9 and James Worthy at 8. My old sports editor loved Gail Goodrich. Gail was his favorite player, partly, I think, because they sort of looked like each other, even though Doug's afternoon game at the Y most certainly did not resemble Goodrich's. Those three seem well-ranked.

At number 11 we run into more problems. Derek Fisher. Everyone loves Fisher, the scrappy, flopping guard who has knocked down numerous clutch shots for LA, most memorably the tying 3 in the 2009 Finals and the .4 shot against the Spurs. But I don't see how he can be ranked above Michael Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes, who come in at 12 and 13, respectively. Cooper delivered vital contributions to five titles, won a defensive player of the year award, started a fashion trend by playing with the drawstrings of his shorts out, patented the phrase Coop-a-loop and was the toughest defender Larry Bird ever faced, according to the Hick from French Lick himself.

And Wilkes, also known as Silk?

Between 1980 and 1983, he averaged no less than 19.6 points per game, with a high of 22.6 He also scored 37 points in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, when the Lakers clinched the first title of the Showtime era. The performance would be among the more memorable clutch games of the decade, but is instead mostly forgotten, thanks to Magic's 42-point, 15-rebound, career-defining performance.

Some other curious choices. Trevor Ariza at 29. Ariza came to the Lakers at the start of the 2007-08 season, had a decent month, hurt his foot, missed most of the season and returned in an ineffective role in the playoffs. Then last year he had a solid year as a role player, saving his best basketball for the playoffs. That's his Laker career. A documentary on his career in the purple and gold could be wrapped up in about two-and-a-half minutes. He should not be ahead of guys like the bespectacled Kurt Rambis (33), Cedric Ceballos (34), Sam Perkins (36), Elden Campbell (35), Sedale Threatt (42) or even Jim Chones (41), Ron Harper (43) and Horace Grant (49). Twenty-ninth? Gah.

That rating's bad enough, but it gets worse when talking about the guy who replaced Ariza on this year's Lakers. Ron Artest could be the key to a repeat title for the Lakers. He's already improved their defense and has had a fairly pain-free transition to the team. He's also played 26 games.

And McMenamin ranks him as the 50th best Laker ever! After 26 games. In one of his other lists, he has Johnny Flynn as the second-best Timberwolves player in history. According to Basketball Reference, the Lakers have had 337 players on their roster. Pick a name, any name, and it will probably be more deserving than Artest. In two years will Artest belong on this list? Almost certainly. In a year he probably will deserve a slot. But 22 games in? Devean George, Chuck Nevitt, Travis Knight, Mark Madsen, Karl Malone and Brian Shaw all want to know what they have to do to gain entry.

The old-time Lakers fans can judge better than I can whether Mel Counts is too high at No. 30, though it seems way too far up the list for a guy best known for being the center who played instead of Wilt in the final minutes of the Game 7 loss to the Celtics in 1969.

Sedale Threatt should be several spots higher. Certainly ahead of someone like Luke Walton at No. 40, or even Andrew Bynum, who's due for a season-ending knee injury any day but is 38th on this list. Threatt came to the Lakers before the start of the 1992 season. At the time, it was considered another great signing by Jerry West because it gave the Lakers their first legitimate backup to Magic since Cooper began fading in the late 1980s. Then, a few games into the season, Magic called a press conference to talk about the HIV he'd "attained" and Showtime officially ended, along with Magic's career. But in an impossible situation - following Magic as Lakers point guard was like following Wooden at UCLA or Jordan as the Bulls's shooting guard - Threatt performed admirably. He led them to the playoffs in 1992, averaging 15 points per game. He sparked them the following season as well, leading them to a near-upset of the Suns in the first round.

Those years are sort of forgotten in Lakers history books, coming after Showtime and before Shaq's arrival. Threatt ensured that no matter how bad things got, they never reached Clippers-level of incompetence. Move him up that list.

Lists serve little purpose beyond igniting arguments, which is why they're so popular in sports. No matter how the rankings fall, someone argues they are wrong. This list isn't any different than any other. Except it has even more wrong with it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why South Africans and snow don't mix

It was about four years ago - a day after a snowstorm like the one that is hammering New York City tonight - that I severely damaged my wife's internal organs with an ice-packed weaponized snowball.

That's her version, anyway. Even after 10 years in America, Louise's African blood has yet to fully adapt to the change of seasons, specifically winter. She still has no concept of "cold," so each morning she asks what the temperature is going to be and then, "What does that mean," as if I have to translate ancient Greek text before she realizes it's time to break out the mittens.

"Well, it's going to be 25, but the wind's going to be really blowing, so it will be pretty brutal."

"What does brutal mean? Hat, gloves?"

Say brutal to someone from Minnesota - or perhaps nasty - and they'll know immediately that it's a day to spend inside or bundled up in layers outside. It means biting wind, a face that aches after about 10 feet of walking. But Louise needs specifics, charts, pictures of what can happen to the human body if exposed to wind chills of zero and below. It's a tough way for her to go through life, always wondering if she'll drop dead in a snowbank between December and March because she forgot to ask her winter-veteran husband what to wear.

Winters have tortured her since her arrival to the country in March 1999. She flew into New York, leaving the sun of Cape Town for the distant States. A snowstorm and bitterly cold temperatures greeted the fresh-faced immigrant, who was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and open-toe shoes as she stepped off the plane. Her luck - and winter fashion sense - hasn't improved much since.

This continental confusion goes both ways. During our last trip to Cape Town, I scoffed when Louise said the African sun was different. Different? It's the same giant mass of hydrogen and helium, same Earth, same body, what's the difference?

"You'll see."

A few days later, as I struggled to breathe and suffered hallucinations, I finally did understand. It wasn't as hot as a few summer days I spent in Vegas, but the African sun - which sounds like a mythical creature - really did seem different. It sapped me more than the, what, American sun? And in a month, when we're again in Cape Town in the middle of their summer, I'll be the one asking, "What does 32 degrees Celsius mean?"

But in this land my experience guides us. Mostly it's the cold temperatures that torment her. In Minnesota - where the phrase Minnesota winter is as ominous as the words African sun - she's a defenseless creature. Any exposed South African skin is ripe for frostbite. I didn't really totally believe that until last year, when she somehow got frostbite in the shape of a tiny circle on her finger, from a nearly undetectable hole in one of her gloves, despite the fact we were only outside for about 90 seconds. She held it up inches from my face as the final piece of evidence, showing it to me with the zeal of a prosecutor detailing the DNA evidence against a murderer.

"See. My skin can't handle winter."

But she sort of likes snow, thinks it's pretty and adds something to the drab winter. Still, she claims - and I believe her because I've never seen it in the nearly eight years I've known her - that she's never touched snow with her bare hands. On the surface it seems like a ludicrous argument, sort of like Pat Robertson famously claiming he could leg press 2,000 pounds. But I believe her.

She maintains her curiosity about the foreign white substance. She likes sledding. She likes the idea of skiing.

And, a few years ago, she wanted to know what it felt like to be hit by a snowball. Later she said she had images of sappy movies in her head as she pictured a young lady playfully traipsing through the snow as her husband softly threw a clump of snow at her that burst into a thousand snowflakes, each as beautiful as they are unique. Reality wasn't quite so romantic. Or painless. One day, as we walked across the bridge to the Bronx, I told her to run up ahead of me and I'd hit her with a snowball. She eagerly sprinted as fast as her short legs could take her. I, meanwhile, constructed a snowball. It had to be one she'd remember. I grabbed a bunch of wet snow. Packed it together, rolling it around in my hands a bit to get a better feel of it. Then fired.

I knew I'd made the snowball too hard and thrown it with too much velocity when she went down to one knee, crying out in pain as onlookers stared. I knew I'd done some damage when a large welt formed on her lower back. Um, sorry, honey?

In my defense, it's not like I Nolan Ryaned the snowball at her fragile kidneys. I've never had the strongest arm, though as I proved with my perfectly placed killshot, I did always pride myself on my accuracy. As she rubbed her wound, she wondered, while glaring at me with the eyes of someone who just lost their innocence, "What did you do?"

Looking back it was a bit more solid than it should have been, but I had to explain to her the physics of snow and the weapons we make out of it. Nice, puffy snow does not work. Mine did splatter slightly at the point of impact, but not quite enough. As I said, it was too much like an iceball instead of a snowball. But still, they do sometimes sting, physically and emotionally. They're nonlethal grenades designed to help us get through the drudgery of winter and a snowstorm.

She needed to experience what it was like to be hit by one. It was, inevitably, the last time she's been hit by one. The mark disappeared. No scars formed, at least not visible. But it did give her one more reason to hate winter.

And to fear it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

And somewhere out there is someone who's never seen Titanic or Star Wars

Three or four years ago I bought what I believed was going to be one of the best presents of the year for Louise: A Christmas Story DVD. I've yet to meet a single person who hasn't seen it and everyone that's watched it loves it.

To many people it's the most classic of Christmas movies, even ahead of another perennial favorite, It's a Wonderful Life. Every scene is memorable, every line quotable.

The tongue on the cold post.
"My little brother had not eaten voluntarily in over three years."
"You'll shoot your eye out, kid."
"Some men are Baptists, others are Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man."
The leg lamp.
Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.
Scut Farkus
My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.

And on and on. Anyone who doesn't own the movie can usually watch it during TNT's annual 24-hour marathon, a perverse programming decision that somehow only delights fans of the movie. Of course it's overkill, but the only reason it seems to upset people is that it's not a 48-hour marathon.

So I just knew Louise would love the movie. This is someone who actually bought a leg lamp - just like Ralph's old man - during a trip to Fargo, and didn't understand when several people told her it was just like from A Christmas Story. So how could she not enjoy the movie that gave birth to the lamp? She'd unwrap it and pop it into the DVD in one motion. Then we'd sit back and laugh.

Four years later, and she's still never seen it. No reason, really. It's just sort of...happened, or not happened. She hasn't had any desire to watch it. Maybe she's heard too much about it and it's been built up too much. Maybe she's sick of me quoting the best lines. And somehow she's avoided it during those all-day marathons. I feel like restraining her, taping her eyes open and forcing her to watch every second. Then she would learn to love it. I'd say she hates Christmas and that's the reason for the boycott, but judging by the crazed Christmas tree decorating session and December shopping excursions, that's not true either. Instead, A Christmas Story is that one movie that everyone has seen that she hasn't, something most people have in common, though the films are always different.

I know people who have somehow never seen the first two Godfathers. But have seen Part 3. Friends of mine who are avid baseball fans haven't seen The Natural. Talk to them about Roy Hobbs' final at-bat and they greet you with a blank stare.

"The bloody shirt. Old bullet wound. Pennant on the line. Broken bat. Home run. Exploding lights."

"Meh, doesn't sound that great."

Some so-called basketball fans have never seen Hoosiers. Up until a few years ago, a close relative of mine had never seen Braveheart, which would make sense if the person was a descendant of Edward Longshanks but seems improbable for anyone else.

The movie I've never seen that always surprises people when they hear about it? Grease. Some people take pride in the fact they've never seen movies or read a famous book that seemingly everyone else has seen or read multiple times. It's not like that with me, at least not consciously. It's just that I've never gone out of my way to watch it. While I'm not the biggest fan of musicals, people whose opinions I trust rave about the movie and insist I'll love it upon first viewing. But I've never rented it and have never stopped on whatever channel it's playing on Saturday afternoons. I know the characters, the story and the songs. I know the look and the styles. For all intents and purposes, I feel like I've seen it.

But the thing that bothers people the most when I tell them I've never seen Grease is that I have seen - and thoroughly enjoyed - Grease 2, the much-maligned sequel starring a young Michelle Pfeiffer and an unknown English actor named Maxwell Caulfield. I saw it with a friend in the theater when it first came out. We went with his parents. After the movie, we stopped at a small liquor store. Knowing now how many people hate Grease 2, perhaps his folks were trying to drink away memories of the night. But I liked it then, and I'll stop and watch it anytime it's on these days. The foreign exchange student trying to win the heart of the girl he loves - or at least lusts after. The songs about patriotism and getting laid. "A girl for all seasons." The epic motorcycle jump over the pool. Highly enjoyable.

"If you've seen that one, and liked it, then you will love Grease because the original is about 100 times better," I've been told. And I believe them. But there's a mental block, something keeping me from finally sitting down and watching the damn thing.

Everyone has these movies. Or maybe it's a TV show. For instance, I've never seen an episode of HBO's The Wire, even though friends of mine stutter and practically pass out when talking about the show. Numerous critics have called it the greatest show in the history of television, which sounds like a Bill Walton-type overreaction but is probably true. I don't doubt its greatness. But we don't have HBO and I've never rented it and have turned down offers for the DVD. Don't know why. And I understand when people get incredulous; it's the same reaction I have when they profess no desire to ever watch Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Yes, we all have these shows. If I was into resolutions, maybe that would be one of mine: to watch Grease. But I'm not so 2010 will likely be another Grease-free year. I'm not ashamed of this but I'm also not proud of it.

But, if you haven't seen Godfather or Godfather II...how do you live with yourself?

Monday, December 14, 2009

A great way to make national news? Lose 65-0 in basketball

About once a year, a high school sporting event makes national news for the lopsided nature of the final score, whether it's a blowout in football or an embarrassing rout on the basketball court. Pundits pontificate and outsiders mock the losing team, when they're not castigating the winning side. I'm also a junkie for these types of games, though I have little interest in assigning blame or shame.

Early in the prep basketball season, a game between two small schools in northern Minnesota broke through the noise to earn some recognition. Last week Moose Lake-Willow River defeated Wrenshall 65-0 in girls basketball. It's the type of score a local sportscaster will introduce with a chuckle and the line, "Folks, this is not a typo."

Countless teams have lost by more than 65 points, but when a shutout's involved, the result's going to bounce from the weekly paper, to public radio, to national blogs and newspapers. It was 40-0 at half. Moose Lake-Willow River played reserves the second half, and Wrenshall had, according to the coach of the winning team, about 11 layups that failed to go in, which would have sliced the deficit to a more manageable 63 points.

One message board I saw devolved into a debate about whether the two teams should even be playing against each other. The person was unaware of the geography of Minnesota and the fact the two teams are of similar size. They play in the same conference. This wasn't a big school from the Twin Cities beating up on a small school in rural Minnesota. A few years ago Wrenshall made the state tournament. If they have some decent younger players in the program, they could be beating Moose Lake-Willow River by 30 in a few years. These types of ups and downs are common in all programs, but especially in small towns, which rely on the luck of the gene pool and the reproduction rate of the townsfolk. Some years a team will be blessed with four or five outstanding players, other times the talent pool is bare for three or four grades. It's accepted that the winning and losing is usually cyclical, though there are also traditionally strong programs that churn out winners every season.

But for everyone else, the bad comes with the good, or, more accurately, after the good.

Unlike similar results in the recent past, there haven't been any premature calls for the head of the winning coach. No one's been accused of bad sportsmanship. If the opponent's missing layups, what's the responsibility of the winning team, especially if the reserves are in the game? Aside from scoring in the wrong basket to get a 2 on the other side of the scoreboard. The reserves have the right to play as hard as possible. If they too are much better than the losing team, routs happen. And, occasionally, but thankfully not often, historic shutouts happen.

Once the sportsmanship questions are dealt with, people then turn to how it affects the players, specifically the losing players. What kind of damage will it do? Will they be on their therapist's couch in 25 years, blaming Moose Lake-Willow River for their three failed marriages, when they're not blaming their overbearing mother and distant father? Will the kids drop out and start drinking and drugging, trying to wash away the shame of being shut out in a basketball game?

What about the children? It's the type of cry we hear often, whether it's involving athletics or Janet Jackson's exposed breasts.

The players will be fine. Whatever embarrassment the kids or coaches or townspeople might feel now - and it is just a basketball game, so they really shouldn't feel bad at all - will dissipate as the season goes on, even as they'll likely continue to rack up eye-opening defeats (they've lost 78-8 and 102-20, as well). In six months it will be a footnote to their school year. In 10 years it will be an anecdote at a class reunion.

Ever since I've been a reporter, I've usually been more interested in the losing team and players. When Trinity Bible lost 105-0 on the football field six years ago, I wondered what the players felt and how they kept moving forward.

The players and coaches were embarrassed, hurt, but hardly permanently damaged. Certainly most of the people involved with that game remember it to this day. But that might have less to do with the score and more to do with the fact someone wrote a book about it with the subhead calling them the worst college football team in the nation.

Many of the players and coaches involved with that game were still at Trinity a year later when I covered the team for my book. That year, in the Lions's first home game of the season, they lost 12-7 in heartbreaking fashion. On the final play of the game, with Trinity a yard away from a victory against Principia, the Lions's running back plunged into the end zone for the winning touchdown. At least that's what it looked like live, and on the videotape. The officials, however, saw things differently. After a few seconds of discussion, they ruled the back down just inches from the goal line. That play - and that game - hurt 105 times more than the 105-0 defeat. That game hurt more because one play meant the difference between a win and a loss. The deciding play in the 105-0 game was the opening kickoff.

The 105-0 game was the reason I was at Trinity a year later. The game put Trinity on the map, even if as just a dot. It helped convince a publisher to back a book about the program. The players remember being beat up that day on the field, they remember the injuries that decimated the team, and they remember the long bus ride home.

But it didn't do any lasting harm, at least not emotionally. The details from the 105-0 game have probably been mostly forgotten. But I bet most of the players remember nearly every play from the final minute of that 12-7 loss.

The losses that hurt, the ones that linger and sometimes even damage, aren't the 50-point defeats, but the final-second losses. If you're a former player, think about the games you remember most from your playing days. If you're a fan, think about the games that stick out most, no matter the level, whether professional or high school. I can still remember the details of the close losses suffered on the high school basketball court and in college. I still wonder how the outcomes would have been different if one shot would have gone in, or we would have grabbed one more rebound. Those are the games we remember, not the ones that were over by halftime.

The Wrenshall girls will be fine. Unless they lose one at the buzzer.

Routs can be quickly forgotten. And if anything, they just make players stronger. It's the heartbreaking losses that torment them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The worst teacher in Walnut Grove history

I mentioned this Little House on the Prairie episode in a previous post on the epic, enjoyable, not-always-faithful-to-the-geography-of-southern-Minnesota show.

This shows Charles Ingalls at his finest. I couldn't find the episode before, but now we can see this man of morals standing up for what's right on the prairie.

Miss Beadle, the blond bombshell, finds herself unable to control the unruly children, including Willie Oleson at his most annoying, a poster child for corporal punishment in the classrooms. The shrill Harriet Oleson reminds Miss B. that "when harvest ends" there will be even larger misbehaving boys for her to handle.

Enter Mr. Applewood, the substitute teacher from every child's nightmares. Throw a spitball at this guy, and it's likely to end up shoved down your mouth.

Poor half-pint. Laura immediately stumbles into trouble because she gets stuck with a note disparaging the new teacher, although the insult is simply a cliched play on the guy's name: Crab-Apple. Walnut Grove children could be brutal, if not witty. He takes out his trusty weapon - a wooden ruler - and whacks her on the hand, seemingly enjoying it a bit too much. Then a juvenile ink prank torments Applewood, leading to more punishment for Laura. In fact, the ultimate punishment: expulsion. The guy might have been a hard-ass but his detective skills were severely lacking. Not only did he ignore the back entrance to the school, but he seems unaware of the likely suspects. Just look into Willie Oleson's eyes and you see the definition of a troublemaker and future delinquent.

One of the odd things in this episode is the three brutes in the background, the terrible trio Miss Beadle was apparently unable to handle. I understand the school was for kids of all grades. But these guys appear to be closer to 30 than 15. If they haven't learned to read at this point and haven't yet figured out how to spell Lincoln, it's time to let them stay in the fields.

Finally, just past the six-minute mark, Charles enters to shut down Applewood's reign of domestic terror. When he walks in on Applewood preparing to hammer Laura again - this time with a much, much larger and more lethal weapon - Walnut Grove's conscience steps in. Charles breaks the instrument, and Applewood's control of the school.

Miss Beadle returns, this time with a better understanding of how to control her middle-aged problem children.

Later, she'd send some of these same children to their death in a classic Minnesota snowstorm. But today was her day to shine.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

General Mills saves children, ruins cereals


That's the headline. Here's the story.

Here's the tragedy. General Mills announced it would reduce the amount of sugar in cereals that are primarily marketed to kids, ie., Lucky Charms, Trix and Cocoa Puffs. The story focuses on how this will affect children, as I guess it should, since it's the most vulnerable among us who will suffer - er, benefit - the most from this change.

But Minneapolis-based General Mills is also messing with my midnight snack. I've been a Lucky Charms consumer for 30 years. For a change this big and life-altering, I feel like General Mills should have polled its most ardent supporters, preferably those of legal drinking- and sugar-eating age. Tell children what's good for them, but can't adults who know what's bad for them have the chance to enjoy themselves?

Disclaimer: I'm extremely healthy and have been since childhood. Haven't had a sick day at work in three years, probably only a handful in 12 years of full-time employment. As a kid I rarely got sick, unless the Lakers lost. Is there a correlation between my good health and the massive amount of Lucky Charms I consume on a yearly basis? I'm not saying that. But I'm also not not saying that.

So with that out of the way, yes, I ate Lucky Charms a couple times a week as a kid. It wasn't the end of the world, or my teeth, though I realize that has pretty much everything to do with genes and metabolism. I continue to eat it today, usually two bowls sometime after 11 p.m. No, it's not always Lucky Charms. Often it will be something healthy, like Wheaties or Life. Cheerios sometimes get a run. But when it's Lucky Charms or Cap'n Crunch or another of the targeted "sugar cereals," all is right with the world.

I used to pity my friends who never got to enjoy a sugar cereal. Did their parents also deprive them of love? Those kids are just fortunate they didn't turn out like Todd Marinovich.

So, what's General Mills going to do for me? Our children will be skinnier and will fit into their clothes better and diabetes rates will plummet as our morbidly obese youth are slimmed if no longer shunned. But what about Lucky Charms-eating adults? Do we have any platform to protest?

I didn't see any specific numbers in the story for Lucky Charms, though it says 10 cereals will be reduced to single-digit grams of sugar per serving. Great. Wonderful PR move. And Cocoa Puffs could see a 25 percent drop. Will that be a 25-percent drop in deliciousness?

"The reduction ... doesn't represent perfection but it represents improvement," said Kelly Brownell, noted buzzkill and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. Brownell later bragged, "The cereal companies have really been under a lot of pressure."

So now that Big Tobacco has been somewhat humbled and reduced to Medium Tobacco, I guess it's time to set our sights on the evils of Big Cereal, tempting our kids with their magically delicious products.

Maybe we do need to protect children from themselves and the marketing genius that is the leprechaun. Isn't there a way to do that without offending those of us who are old enough to decide how much sugar we eat during the day?

Give us an adult version, one loaded with insane amounts of sugar. Put warning labels on it, something with a skull, or a 450-pound man with no teeth. Slap an NC-17 rating on the flap. Wrap the inside bag in the stuff used on CD casing. Force nervous, pimply faced teens to show fake IDs as they buy their Lucky Charms before picking up the beer their 22-year-old sister bought them at the nearby liquor store. Make the eating of sugar cereals a shameful thing. Just don't deprive adults of the thing that's made us loyal General Mills consumers: sugar.

We know the dangers of sugar cereals. Cocoa Puffs turn your milk a putrid brown. At the bottom of a Cap'n Crunch box, you'll be forced to pour out the crushed pieces that are now in a yellow powder form and pollute the bowl. The marshmallows in Lucky Charms get soggy if the box is left open. These are very real dangers. Cavities and diabetes...meh.

I'm sure someday I'll be forced to consume a diet rich in fiber and other bland substances. And when that time comes I'll dutifully pour my Wheaties or Total, and I won't even add a few spoonfuls of sugar. But until I'm following doctor's orders, I need my sugar cereal, day or night. I need my Lucky Charms. And Lucky Charms with less sugar just ain't Lucky Charms.

The good thing about dangerous blizzards

On Wednesday morning thousands of Minnesota schoolkids will wake up and hear two of the most magical words in their vocabulary: snow day.

Two months after getting the first big snowfall of the year, the state will receive another winter blast, though Minnesotans can't complain too much since people were golfing just last week. But the clubs can be put away now for the next three or four months. Break out the shovels. And the promises to someday move out of the damned state to someplace warm. As much as a foot of snow could fall in the southern part of the state. Strong winds will combine with the snow to create whiteout conditions. Authorities recommend no travel.

It's fairly standard stuff for the state, but if you're in school, getting a hand from Mother Nature never gets old, even if the long winters sometimes do. As a kid, you don't really appreciate just how dangerous a snowstorm can be, at least until getting a driver's license. You don't care about the treacherous commute workers face. All you want to hear is more news about "blowing snow" and its first-cousin, "dangerous drifting." A foot of snow is nice, but not necessarily a school closer. It's usually all about the wind. Two inches can fall but can shut down a school, depending on the wind. Very rarely that wind led to a "cold day," when temperatures and wind chills became so brutal that schools throughout the state closed, occasionally by government decree.

But snow days ruled. Today of course the Internet provides the minute-by-minute updates on school closings. When I was in school we relied primarily on the radio, specifically WCCO, also known as the Good Neighbor. And when the morning anchors delivered news of a late start or a cancellation, they really were being good neighbors, as if they somehow had control over the school names they mechanically recited.

They read them alphabetically, meaning we had to wait a bit before they'd get to the Js. My stomach started churning around the Cs. By the time the announcer had barreled through the Fs, I'd started in with the prayers.

The tension increased as the announcer breezed through each letter, meticulously listing the schools that were an hour late, then those that had a two-hour late start. Finally the highlight of the show: the cancellations. It was like listening to election results over a radio, only with more at stake. The tension increased depending on how little homework a student did the night before. Betting on a snow day could be dangerous.

The tension increased because another school in the state - Paynesville - sounded exactly like Janesville, so if you somehow missed the order and just caught the "esville part" there was always a question about whether it was us or the lucky kids in central Minnesota. Then you had to wait for the announcer to read the entire list again before hearing the good or bad news.

For a time, our school superintendent had a reputation as being the toughest administrator in the state. He made Bud Grant look like a pansy. As the legend went, he'd drive outside of town and into the country to see just how bad the roads had become. If he didn't go into the ditch, we had school. Didn't matter if every other school in the state had called it off, we'd be trudging in, trying to learn through the haze of bitterness. We took it personally, as if he enjoyed sending us out into the harsh winter day. We probably had as many snow days as anyone else, but when we got one we felt like we'd truly earned it.

We did seem to have an inordinately high number of one-hour-late starts, which are nothing but cruel teases. Might as well just send the kids in at the normal time. An hour late? What's that give you? Can't go back to bed, unless it's for maybe a 30-hour nap. The school day is still going to drag on.

Whenever official word of a full-blown cancellation came over the airwaves, a whole range of options opened up. A snow day felt like two regular days off. We were like death row inmates granted a last-minute reprieve. The only question now, how to utilize this freedom? Snowball wars? Of course, provided the snow wasn't too fluffy. Sledding and snowmobiling were near-certainties. In our house, I'd put up a Nerf hoop on the sliding glass door and we'd hold hours-long dunking contests and one-on-one tournaments. We flourished. Snow days often became more productive for students than many school days.

In high school the options increased. Senior year, a snow day led to an epic football game in the yard of a friend who lived on a farm. Emotions ran high as the wind chill plummeted. The only thing missing was some old-school NFL Films music and a John Facenda narration. Controversy erupted when we discovered one of the players, my friend Mike, wore an illegal boot that gave him a decided advantage when running in the snow. What's an illegal boot? It's decidedly lighter than the monstrosities on our feet, which would have served us well on Mount Everest, providing him traction and the chance for more speed. He denied the charge then and still does today. The proof was in our slipping and sliding while he thrived and ran carefree through the snow, like a young Jerry Rice. I'd like to say there were no hard feelings over the boots or the game, but since I still remember that day nearly 17 years later, that would be a lie.

The only downfall to snow days is if a school accumulates too many of them. That leads to having to make them up at the end of the year. But in the midst of a snow day, no one thinks about what's going to take place six months later. It's all about the here and now.

By the end of the snow day, only one question really matters to students. Is this storm bad enough for the rarest of events: back-to-back snow days?

I don't miss Minnesota winters. But how I miss those snow days.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why I'm suddeny a rugby - and cricket - fan

The movie I'm most looking forward to seeing this month opens up Friday. It's getting Oscar buzz, primarily because of the participants and the theme. Hopefully, the actual product lives up to the hype.

Invictus stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, while Matt Damon portrays a rugby superstar. Clint Eastwood directed the film. The movie tells the story of South Africa's victory in the 1995 rugby World Cup (um, spoiler alert).

I've previously heard stories of that particular championship from Louise's family, especially her brothers and stepfather, avid sportsmen. Even Louise remembers the event, a remarkable achievement for a woman who rarely participates in any sport and never watches them on television. She does enjoy attending an occasional Yankees game, but that's primarily because of the Cracker Jacks. And she had a good time at a Knicks game we attended, although that was because she had a pair of binoculars and two hours free for celebrity watching. Even South Africa's favorite sports such as cricket, soccer and rugby hold little interest to her. But she remembers that 1995 World Cup.

The unexpected title brought the country together just after apartheid had ended and Mandela became president. It's sort of like if the 1980 Miracle on Ice team had won gold around the time of the Civil War.

I'm looking forward to it even though I still only have a vague understanding of the rules of rugby. I've watched it in this country and in South Africa. My brother-in-law was a star player himself. My old editor played in college and continued to roll around on the - pitch? - well into his adult years. I know rugby players like to drink. I know they take a hell of a beating, and that I never could have made it as a player, even in my younger days. But understanding strategy and rules and nuances and history and what the players in short-shorts are doing in the odd-looking groupings? No.

When we travel to Cape Town in January, I'd love to watch the movie with a South African audience, an experience that would probably be similar - though a hundred times more uplifting - to the time we watched Blood Diamond in Cape Town in 2007. South Africans are not afraid to express their happiness in a public setting. When our plane landed - successfully - on our previous trip, the passengers erupted in applause. If they knew something I didn't about the airline, I wanted to know before the return trip to America.

"Are they surprised we made it alive?" I asked Louise.

"No, they're just so happy to be back in their homeland and they cheer when they're happy."

So I can imagine the applause in the theater when the South Africans win the World Cup.

Pretty much all of South Africa's favorite sports are...foreign to me, as I fulfill my role as the American who hasn't yet learned enough about another culture. But I have tried. Jesus, I've tried.

During our six-week stay in Cape Town three years ago, I must have watched a dozen hours of televised cricket, which many people might think is about as interesting as listening to crickets for 12 hours. With the help of Louise's family, I started picking up some of the basics of the game and actually got caught up in some of the more exciting moments, even if I occasionally had to be told when an exciting moment was taking place. Once I started to understand a little bit about the game, I found myself actively rooting for the home team. I almost instinctively began disliking the squads from India, Pakistan and England, though I'd previously had little reason to feel anything about those countries' sporting teams.

Louise went to school with one of South Africa's star players, providing a celebrity gossip angle to the proceedings, something I require with my sports, like other American fans (see Woods, Tiger).

Thanks to one of Louise's brothers, I even attended a match, complete with an alcohol-and-food-laden suite. Unfortunately, my stomach's continuing struggle with adapting to the country's food meant I spent half the day wondering if I'd make it back to my in-laws' home alive, and the other half wishing for death. But even in that physical condition, I appreciated the athleticism of the players and the intensity of the event, the types of things fans of any sport understand, no matter the country.

By the end of our time in Cape Town I'd become a cricket fan, although not a knowledgeable one. I look forward to watching more of it, on television and in person, this January.

And I'm looking forward to Invictus this Friday. I'm certainly not the world's biggest rugby fan, but I am a fan of the story the history, and, most importantly, the country.

Now, all I need is for someone to tell me what is going on in this video.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Comparing improbable game-winning bank shots by Laker legends

Kobe Bryant livened up this dark and quiet Broadway apartment late last night with a miraculous, ridiculous game-winning shot that could have only been made by a player with enough skill to be that lucky.

With three seconds left and the Lakers trailing the Heat by two, Bryant took the pass, fumbled it, dribbled to his left and hit a running bank shot off of one leg to give the Lakers the fortunate victory.

ESPN's J.A. Adande wrote that Bryant is the best the game's ever had at making bad shots. Bad shot in this case meaning extremely difficult, not necessarily the type of bad shots Bryant's long been-accused of hoisting.

It was a remarkable shot. And, at least to this Lakers fan, brought back pleasant memories of a night 22 years ago, when another Laker legend livened up a dark and quiet room, although that one was in my parents' basement in Minnesota. In a December 1987 showdown, this one against the hated Celtics in Boston, Magic Johnson banked in an improbable, miraculous bank shot off of one leg that, like Kobe's, could have only been made by someone with enough skill and creativity to be that lucky.

When comparing them, Magic's probably had the greatest impact, as it came against another top team, while the Lakers last night simply defeated an average squad at home. For degree of difficulty, I'll give the slight edge to Kobe's, as it was from a longer distance and came off of the dribble, while Magic's was a catch-and-shoot, albeit a far-from-normal catch-and-shoot.

Magic did have a tougher angle, as making a shot from the top of the three-point circle is the easiest place to make a triple, much easier than hitting a long-distance shot from angle like Magic did. Kobe had the more difficult bank shot. In a game of H-O-R-S-E, it'd be harder for someone to call glass from straightaway than it would be from the left side.

Kobe's game-winner came with Dwyane Wade defending, a great defensive player but still a 6-6 guard. Magic hit his with the lumbering, stoic figure of Robert Parish nearby, holding his arms up in a helpless maneuver. Edge to Magic.

In the end, it's impossible to say which one was more difficult, as both players got decent looks at the rim for shots they might only make two out of 10 times in those situations. Kobe did get to celebrate in front of the home crowd, including a stunned Jack Nicholson. But Magic's came in Boston, in front of the (probably drunk) Garden fans who back then almost never saw their team lose at home. In 1986 the Celtics were 40-1 in the Garden, in 1987 they went 39-2 (one of those was also against the Lakers) and in 1988 they'd finish 36-5, with one of those being this heartbreaking defeat.

Nothing in sports, even today, warms my heart like seeing Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale all standing on the court in stunned silence, milling around with no idea what happened or where to go next. Magic and the Lakers ran off the court, probably out of fear a disgruntled Celtic fan would fire an object onto the court, but it had to be more gratifying for them to defeat their No. 1 rival on their court than it was for the Lakers to knock off the Heat.

Both Kobe and Magic's shots came six months after their greatest professional triumphs. Kobe, of course, won his first post-Shaq title while winning Finals MVP. Magic, meanwhile, led the Lakers to a six-game victory in the Finals over these same Celtics and also hit the most famous shot of his career, the Game 4 hook in the Garden that gave the Lakers a 3-1 lead. With this shot six months later, Magic all but destroyed any Garden myth that had survived the junior hook back in June.

I don't know which one was a tougher shot. Both brought me out of my chair. I replayed both a dozen times. I saved the tape of the 1987 shot and I'll save the tape of this one.

But in the end, it's always better when it comes against the Celtics.

Remind me to never get arrested in Italy

The Italian murder trial of American Amanda Knox seemed to be a case created with the producers of 48 Hours or Dateline in mind. Young American girl accused of murdering her British roommate. Party girl gone bad, heinous crime, sex. All the key elements needed to make a sensational story, which the Knox case obviously became.

Though the British tabloids convicted her long ago, Knox was formally convicted on Friday and sentenced to 26 years in prison, although the Italian justice system allows numerous appeals and retrials.

I don't have any idea what the truth is in the Knox case, but I do know I wouldn't have the most faith in the prosecution team that helped convict her. It's nearly impossible for anyone to have any confidence in the Italian system if they've read the stunning, superb book The Monster of Florence.

Thriller writer Douglas Preston wrote the book, with contributions from famed Italian journalist Mario Spezi. Preston arrives in Italy to work on a novel, but quickly finds himself drawn to the story of the serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. The killer - a Son of Sam type - haunted Florence for three decades, as seven different pairs of lovers were killed and mutilated in rural areas outside of the city. Over the years, several people were accused of being the killer, many were arrested. Some were even convicted, only to be released later when it turned out their convictions were mockeries of justice. Preston begins researching the case along with Spezi. Eventually the pair apparently do what the authorities seemed unwilling or unable to do: find the real killer.

The prosecution, led by a man named Giuliano Mignini, eventually arrests Preston and Spezi. Mignini at one point even absurdly accuses Spezi of being the Monster of Florence. The book's details are so unbelievable and outrageous that it lives up to the old cliche, no one would believe this if it was fiction.

How to sum up the absurdity of the case? This is what I wrote to a friend once:

Imagine the BTK killer who operated in Kansas for decades had never been found. Over a 25-year span, seven different people are separately arrested and charged with being the BTK killer. Three of those are actually convicted of being the BTK killer. Later, all three are exonerated. Then, in 2006, Bob Woodward is arrested for obstruction of justice and is also suspected by the police of being the BTK killer. Also, four of the people arrested and charged - including Bob Woodward - are arrested only because of the insane theories posted by a conspiracy nut on their web site. No physical evidence, just conspiracy theories dreamed up and posted online. That's the American equivalent of what happened in the Monster of Florence.

So what's this all have to do with the Knox case? Obviously it's in the same country, but it's more than that. After all, just because OJ got off for murder, doesn't mean people lost complete faith in the American judicial system (although some certainly did). No, it relates to the Knox case because the same prosecutor who famously bungled the Monster case - Mignini - was the same man who prosecuted Knox! This despite the fact Mignini was accused of abuse of office because of the Monster case. And, like in that case, he again relied on strange and bizarre theories of the crime in the Knox trial.

Remember the North Carolina prosecutor who so famously messed up the Duke lacrosse rape case, Mike Nifong? Imagine Nifong, two years after the Duke debacle, being put in charge of a high-profile rape case where he accuses six or seven foreign exchange students with the rape of a stripper. Would anyone have some doubts about his judgment? It's a similar situation with Mignini.

Douglas Preston himself believes Knox is innocent and writes about why in this interview.

Maybe we'll never get the real answer in the Knox case. But Preston's book and the Knox case give people evidence that they should probably be extra-careful if they're ever fortunate enough to visit Italy. We've long been warned in over-the-top movies like Midnight Express to never try to smuggle hashish out of Turkey, lest you end up in a Turkish prison. And Brokedown Palace taught us the dangers of smuggling in Thailand. Thank you, Claire Danes.

Not sure what the lesson is for Italy, other than hope your prosecutor isn't Giuliano Mignini.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Remember when Kip Keino was SI's Sportsman of the Year?

Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year issue came out this week, with Derek Jeter's handsome face gracing the cover. Jeter helped the Yankees to another World Series title and in the process broke Lou Gehrig's mark as the team's all-time hits leader. A few hundred more hits, a couple more titles, and he'll pass through Monument Park and ascend straight to sainthood.

Just like every year, SI received criticism for its choice. Jeter's not even the best player on his team, but giving the Sportsman of the Year Award to steroid user and tabloid fodder Alex Rodriguez would sort of go against the spirit of the award. And, more importantly for the moralists, what would the children think? I've also seen people ridicule Jeter's triumph as a way for "Sports Illustrated to sell magazines," an outdated notion about the media that people still use to belittle newspapers and magazines, as if Hearst and Pulitzer were still battling to sell papers by creating jingoistic fever in support of the Spanish-American War. "REMEMBER THE MAINE!" Good for selling papers. "REMEMBER THE CAPTAIN!" Not quite as exciting.

Some candidates enjoyed more dominating years - Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Jimmie Johnson, to name three - but the Sportsman of the Year award has always been about more than on-the-field dominance. It goes to "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement," which, like MVP awards in every sport, can be interpreted in countless ways.

Before Tom Verducci's story on Jeter, the magazine notes, "It is not so much what he accomplished at 35 - a fifth World Series ring capping a historic season, to be sure - as how he arrived at his iconic place. Being the ultimate team player and a role model synonymous with winning has brought him still another title."

So give it to Jeter. It's not like SI hasn't had more controversial picks in the past.

A list of all the Sportsman of the Year reveals a who's who of sporting legends, along with several who in the hell choices. It is fascinating to see how the award evolved as the sporting world changed.

How lucky did the magazine get with its first choice in 1954? Roger Bannister won that award for running the first sub-four-minute mile. It's one of the most famous accomplishments in sports history. People still know Roger Bannister's name, 55 years later. Name four famous distance runners today. I give up, too. Perfect timing for a young magazine handing out its first Sportsman of the Year honor.

Today track and field athletes usually only make the news if they're exposed for injecting massive amounts of steroids, or if they turn in inhuman performances such as Usain Bolt. But even Bolt's brilliance couldn't earn him the award. He was born in the wrong decade. Bobby Joe Morrow won in 1956 for winning a pair of Olympic golds, while Rafer Johnson won in 1958 for setting the decathlon world record. Oh for the days when the decathlon was one of the better known events in the world.

How about Jerry Lucas winning in 1961 for being the Final Four MVP? Certainly Lucas was a legendary college basketball player, a three-time All-American, one of the best players in Big Ten history and a national champion. But 1961...great athlete...historic season...

I don't know if Roger Maris deserves to be in the baseball hall of fame. There are decent arguments for both sides. But a guy who broke the most famous mark in sports and did it while going through unprecedented scrutiny and pressure, and did it in New York, how does he not win the award? Maris appears to have had perhaps the greatest case to be Sportsman of the Year of anyone who ever won it, yet somehow he got beaten out by a college basketball player, at a time when college hoops wasn't close to being as popular as it is now. So much for New York bias. Did Babe Ruth have a nephew on the photo staff? Someone needs to write a letter to the editor, even if it is 48 years after the fact.

Boxing has plummeted off the sporting map in this country in the last decade - ever since Mike Tyson started making headlines only for his cannibalism and not his fighting - but the Sportsman of the Year award has long-shunned the sport. Sugar Ray Leonard is the last boxer to win, back in 1981. Two speed-skaters, Bonnie Blair and Johann Olav Koss, have won it since a boxer. Speed-skaters!

Some were obvious slam dunk choices, though maybe that's a misguided assumption to make about the award considering the 1961 choice.

1980: U.S. Olympic hockey team. If the magazine wanted to be contrarian or controversial, I suppose they could have gone with Magic Johnson after his 42-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 6 of the Finals. But to not pick the Miracle on Ice team would have been unpatriotic, if not downright treasonous in some corners.

2008: Michael Phelps. Obvious, eight gold medals. Or was it? Because in 1972, seven gold medals weren't enough for the mustachioed Mark Spitz, who lost out to Billie Jean King and John Wooden.

Ali only won once - in 1974, the year he upset George Foreman - the same number of times as jockey Steve Cauthen, the 1977 winner.

While numerous legends have been honored, a surprising number of them never won. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two guys whose obituaries will carry the line "helped save the NBA" in the first paragraph, were both shut out. Bird's best chance came in 1986, when he won his third straight MVP and third championship. Instead, Joe Paterno got it.

In the story honoring Paterno, Rick Reilly wrote, "No, this is one for the 'stayers' of the world, one of those Irving G. Thalberg 'lifetime achievement' awards. This is for the guy who keeps churning out good stuff, always kicks in when the birthday hat comes around and never punches out before seven." Who would have guessed Paterno and his glasses would still be running around the Penn State sideline 23 years after he received a lifetime achievement award?

Magic's best chance probably came in 1987, his breakthrough individual season when he won MVP and led the Lakers to their fourth title of the decade. But while Bird got bested by a coaching legend, Magic got beat out by one of the oddest Sportsman of the Year choices.

They called it "Athletes who care," which sounds like the first three words to a United Way ad, complete with sappy instrumental music. Bob Bourne, Judi Brown King, Kip Keino, Dale Murphy, Chip Rives, Patty Sheehan, Rory Sparrow and Reggie Williams (the football player, not the former Georgetown Hoya) all shared the honor. It's hard to mock the choices, as the athletes helped handicapped children, abused children, and orphans. Then again, athletes do those things every year, sometimes receiving publicity for the work, often not. Why was 1987 suddenly the year of charity for SI?

In 1984, Edwin Moses and everyone's favorite tiny gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, shared the trophy. Moses, an Olympic hurdling star, and Retton, America's princess/sweetheart/golden girl, certainly had memorable Olympics. But those Games also included Carl Lewis, who matched Jesse Owens by winning four gold medals. Sure, the Russians weren't there because of a boycott, but Moses and Mary Lou didn't face the dreaded Communists either. Lewis, probably the greatest track and field athlete ever, never won Sportsman of the Year. But track and fielders Judi Brown King and Kip Keino - two who cared - did. Lewis is probably still bitter.

Tiger Woods is a two-time winner, the only person twice honored as an individual (Curt Schilling won along with Randy Johnson in 2001 and as part of the Red Sox in '04). Not sure Tiger's winning another one. He could win all four majors next year, save a handicapped orphan from a house fire, come up with a fail-safe vaccine for swine flu, and land a plane in the Hudson River and it wouldn't be good enough in the post-car-accidentgate world.

The fact Federer's never won is a bit odd, since he is perhaps the most dominant athlete of his generation, even more than Tiger. But it is tennis, and in recent years SI's mostly stuck to the major sports and anyone with a racquet doesn't get consideration. David Robinson and Tim Duncan shared it in 2003, the Red Sox got it in 2004, followed by yet another New Englander, Tom Brady. Dwyane Wade won in 2006, with Phelps breaking through the big-sport bubble in 2008. 2007? Brett Favre, who, like Paterno in 1986, sort of won it as a lifetime achievement award. His renaissance that year gave the magazine a reason to give it to him, though they couldn't know that he'd make his best case for the award two years later.

Coaches rarely win. Dean Smith was the last, in 1997 (sorry, Coach K). Before that Don Shula won in 1993.

Perhaps marketing did play a role in Jeter's selection. But even if it did, it doesn't mean the award is sullied or spoiled. There have been shadier reasons for giving the award to someone.

In Michael MacCambridge's outstanding Sports Illustrated bio, The Franchise, he recites the strange case of the 1983 Sportswoman of the Year. Runner Mary Decker, who'd become best known in the 1984 Olympics for tripping after getting tangled up with the barefooted Zola Budd, captured the award, raising eyebrows within the magazine. Decker had a decent season, but Martina Navratilova was the most dominant female athlete that year, and other track and field stars like Lewis and Moses also had better years. But SI's editor wasn't obsessed with those people.

MacCambridge writes, "The Decker announcement was greeted with nods and winks within SI, where [editor Gil] Rogin's infatuation (some called it an obsession) with Decker was the source of more than a few jokes. It had long been clear to most of the staff that Rogin was 'entranced by watching her run, watching her move,' as Kenny Moore put it... 'Everybody laughed behind his back,' said Deford. 'He'll do anything to get into her pants.'"

So that helps explain Decker's choice.

Now, someone explain Jerry Lucas.

Here are some of the better Sportsman of the Year stories from over the years.

Gary Smith's classic, famous story on Tiger Woods in 1996
. Thousands of people are now psychoanalyzing Woods through this piece.

Another Gary Smith offering, this one on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1985.

The Roger Bannister story, although it's more a recap than a profile.

Jerry Lucas.

Michael Jordan in 1991.

The legendary Frank Deford writes about the legendary Jack Nicklaus in 1978.

And, finally, Mary Decker.