Sunday, November 28, 2010

Don McLean invades my dreams

This weekend, New York's Q104.3 marked its 10th anniversary by breaking out its list of the top 1,043 classic rock songs of all time, a staple of all classic rock stations - with the actual number depending on the station's frequency. No big surprises with the Top 5:
5. "Let it Be"
4. "Layla"
3. "Born to Run"
2. "Hey Jude"
1. "Stairway to Heaven"

Fairly standard, though other stations toss in "Satisfaction" somewhere.

I only tuned in at about No. 20, so I'm not sure which songs came in at the bottom of the list. Was "Red Rubber Ball" No. 1,043 with a bullet?" Did "Revolution 9" snare the 1,033rd slot?

The songs came on as I settled in for a Sunday nap. I need silence at night to fall asleep, but for a nap it doesn't matter what's playing in the background, whether it's Seinfeld reruns or never-ending classic rock countdowns. Just as long as it's not car alarms or jackhammers out on Broadway. But there are side effects to having the TV or radio playing: the lyrics or characters enter my dreams.

Today I fell asleep just as "American Pie" started, and because it wasn't the shorter version, I had drifted off by the time the children screamed and the poets dreamed. Yet the song infected my sleeping thoughts. At one point I dreamed that I was falling out of a hot air balloon piloted by Ritchie Valens. Psychological meaning? Because I have lucid dreams, I told myself to wake up before I hit the ground, but that also meant I didn't get the chance to ask Ritchie why he was up in the air in a balloon, if, as everyone who's seen La Bamba knows, he was afraid of flying? And did he win another coin flip? Was the Big Bopper aboard?

This almost always happens if there's background entertainment when I fall asleep. A phone rings on the TV and it rings in my head. Dan Dierdorf offers nonsensical commentary on TV and he's doing the same thing in my dream, only instead of wondering about Eli Manning's ability to handle the blitz he's saying things like, "Boy, you wanna talk about some type of shot. Take a look at this shot by Shawn Fury with the shot clock winding down."

Also today, Billy Joel sang "Piano Man" - number... something on the list - and in my dream I was in a dark bar watching a sad middle-aged man at the piano. I have to believe this is fairly common, correct?

Still, always a bit strange.

The last time I wrote about dreams, I mentioned how I wished I could pull off the lucid dream more often during good dreams. Perhaps because I wrote that and it crept into my subconscious - or maybe because I saw Inception twice - I've been able to occasionally pull that off, but it remains frustrating. In the past few months there have been times when I've told myself in the dream, "This is a dream, and it's going well. Don't wake up." This gives me a few more seconds, but because I'm now thinking about this in the dream, it still leads to me inevitably waking up.

Fortunately, I've pulled off a new trick. Even if I wake up, if I can go back to sleep within, say, 30 seconds, I'll sometimes be able to pick up the dream where it left off.

As I get older I feel like I'm gaining more control of my dreams, though maybe that's impossible and I'm simply, well, imagining things. I still have nightmares nearly every night, but they're not as scary when you can tell yourself the monsters aren't real, even before you wake up with a pounding heart.

Most nights I don't know what causes the nightmares. Today, I blame Don McLean for tossing me out of that hot-air balloon. Him and his worries about widowed brides. So the key to avoiding nightmares during naps? Don't have any songs about death playing in the background. No "Tell Laura I Love Her," no "Leader of the Pack," no "Dead Man's Curve."

Basically, avoid any song from the 1950s and '60s that focused on teenagers and their tendency to love too much and drive too fast. They're still classic songs, but all they'll give you is restless nights.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Defending Larry Bird

Sports message boards are usually not the best place to engage in rational debates. They're like political message boards, except the posters are even more passionate, though thankfully less obsessed with immigration. Old folks go on there and often believe there haven't been any good basketball players since 1972 while young people don't believe anyone who was born before 1980 could compete in today's game. Still, there are some interesting arguments and what fun would sports be if you couldn't debate about the best players in history?

So a few days ago, on a Lakers board, a debate broke out over Larry Bird's place in history. It's too much to expect completely unbiased opinions on a Lakers board. When people talk about the five best players in history, many people will write that it's Magic and Kareem, Kobe, West and Wilt. With Elgin Baylor as the sixth-best of all-time and maybe Jamaal Wilkes as the 10th best. Still, many people supported Bird and said he was a top 5 player. Others said top 10, at least. But others ridiculed his accomplishments and his game, with some even saying Scottie Pippen might have been better. Somewhere, an overweight Irishman sporting a ketchup-and-beer-stained No. 33 Celtics throwback jersey wept. It's absurd.

But obviously it's impossible to say for certain where any player ranks. There are no right or wrong answers, although if you say Pippen over Bird, you should lose the right to debate. I understand where the sentiment comes from. Growing up, Bird was a boogeyman in my house, like Reagan but with worse hair and a better jumper. Magic and Bird might have become friendlier when they filmed their famous Converse commercial, but nothing softened my feelings about the Hick from French Lick. Mostly it was about fear, with a dose of appreciation. Fear at how he could dismantle a team with his shooting or his passing. Fear about watching Bird operate with the Celtics tied or trailing by 1 in the closing seconds. But I always appreciated just how dominant he was on the court, even as I argued that Magic was better.

Now, 18 years after Bird's retirement, 24 years after his last MVP, it's simply about appreciation.

Some links and tidbits on a guy who was better than Scottie Pippen:
* This guy put together a list of Bird's 10-best games. Seems like a thorough list, though I'm sure other Bird groupies might have different games in different slots. I wasn't very familiar with No. 10. Against the Jazz in 1985, Bird had 30 points, 12 boards, 10 assists and nine steals -- through three quarters. He didn't play the fourth quarter of the blowout and didn't want to go in to get the steal that would have completed the quadruple-double.

* Sports Illustrated wrote several classic pieces on Bird. Here's a Frank Deford story from 1988. Jack McCallum wrote a great one in 1986. The stories speculate about whether Bird was the best player in NBA history. Yes, before Jordan claimed the mythical crown, Bird wore it for a few short years. By the end of his career, though, many people - including Bird superfan Bill Simmons - had put even Magic ahead of Bird on all-time lists, owing mostly to the fact injuries tormented the legend in his final years. Still...better than Pippen.

* Here's a seven-minute video of great Bird passes. The title calls him the greatest passer in the history of the game, which isn't true (ahem, Magic) but he was spectacular.

* People occasionally use Bird's teammates against him, saying that he excelled partly because he played with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on the frontcourt, and had another Hall of Famer, Dennis Johnson, in the backcourt for much of his career. Occasionally, in the past, perhaps after a night of drinking or maybe after an evening spent with a Boston native, I might have made those same points. 1979 the Celtics won 29 games. The next year, Bird's rookie season, the Celtics won 61 games. The roster was basically unchanged, with the exception of Bird. McHale and Parish didn't arrive for another season. Yet Bird improved the Celtics by an astounding 32 games. Bird made everyone around him better, not just Hall of Famers.

* A few of Larry's more memorable game-winning shots:

* Thanks to his efforts in the 3-point contest, not to mention all the ones he made in real games, Bird is regarded as one of the all-time greats from behind the line. Yet the early part of his career shows how the game changed as the '80s progressed and how different it is today. Bird made 58 his rookie season, but after that made 20, 11, 22, 18 and 56 each season. But he then drilled 82 in 1986, 90 in 1987 and 98 the following season. In 2006, Ray Allen made 269 3-pointers. When the Celtics won the title in 2008, they had three guys make more than 88. Here's his famous performance in the 1988 3-point contest, when he came on strong at the end, fired the final ball, raised his finger before it went through, then walked away in triumph.

I don't know where Bird ranks all-time. Top 5? Probably. No matter where he falls on anyone's list in this completely subjective argument, he remains one of the most important players in league history and one of the most memorable. Even a Lakers fan should be able to acknowledge that.

And now, as penance, I'll watch Game 4 of the 1987 Finals.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tales from the Universal Building, Part II

Part I of the award-winning series:

Someone discovered my blog by searching for Universal Building Fargo apartment.

I don't know who searched for this, whether it's a he or a she, a teen or a retiree. I don't know if they're looking for a place to live or a place to drop out of society. Maybe it's for a child, maybe for themselves. The Universal Building doesn't make the news much. I haven't been to Fargo in five years. I don't know if it's even an apartment building anymore, or even any kind of building at all. When it does make the news, it's for stories like "Biggest recent fires in Fargo," which ran in The Forum last month after a massive apartment fire, which recalled the horrific fire and murder in the UB in 1999.

I moved in about a week before Thanksgiving in 2000. It took several months before I moved out of the bedroom and took up permanent night-time residence on the already-furnished couch. The reason? My neighbor, Pappy. That wasn't his real name, I don't think. Probably a nickname from the second World War or something his fellow cell-block mates called him in the winter of '71. One morning someone pounded on my door for five minutes before I finally opened it. The elderly man standing there with his hat in his hands said he was looking for "Pappy." The blank look on my face didn't give him the answer he needed but as he started to ask again, the door to the apartment next to mine flew open and another elderly gentleman stuck his head out.

"Pappy, you son of a bitch!" the knocker yelled, before walking down and hugging his Platoon mate? Partner in crime? Pappy. So that was the man who moved in a week earlier.

I returned to bed but not for long. The thin walls refused to mute their conversation, which the men conducted at a decibel level most people use only when yelling at a speeding car that just ran over their left foot. Until that day, Pappy had lived a lonely life for a week, the type of monastic existence I think you were required to live the moment you signed a lease at the Universal Building. Very few couples lived in the building. Mostly single men, many likely hiding out from federal marshals, others plotting crime sprees that would almost certainly violate the conditions of their parole. A couple lived a few doors down for a brief time. Each afternoon when I left for work I heard the woman - a twentysomething gal - screaming at her no-good boyfriend. He was a jerk, a prick, inconsiderate, selfish and thoughtless. At night I'd return and as I exited the elevator it became clear she had forgiven the man's sins as her screams again filled the hall, though the words were - aside from an enthusiastic and possibly faked Yes! - mostly unintelligible.

But for the most part it was middle-aged men with thousand-yard stares and old guys who spent their money on Wonder Bread and lottery tickets. And Pappy. Over the next few months I greeted Pappy in the hall on several occasions and each encounter shortened my life by six months, thanks to the secondhand smoke that wafted from his jacket. At this stage in Pappy's life, his internal organs very likely resembled the inside of a cigarette. If you had cut him, smoke would have billowed out, followed by some leaking tar. It turned out he had a daughter, who visited about once a month and engaged in fights with her father that usually ended with her slamming the door while calling Pappy the same name his friend used the first time I saw him in the hall.

Pappy's domestic problems didn't run me out of my bedroom, though; his snoring and morning bathroom stops did. Remember the scene with Frank Drebin in the bathroom in The Naked Gun, after the press conference? That wasn't over-the-top; it was based on Pappy's morning ritual. That woke me up, after I'd spend each night struggling for sleep as Pappy's snoring threatened to set off car alarms in Grand Forks. It's a sound I'd never heard before, and one I hope to never hear again. If a doctor heard it they would have sent him to an emergency room and notified next of kin, but not before drawing up a three-page outline for an article in a medical journal.

Eventually I surrendered. I started sleeping on the couch, an uncomfortable piece of furniture that didn't contain my 6-3 frame but was at least in the living room, giving me some breathing room away from Pappy's abnormal breathing. The bedroom became a storage space, a cursed place to throw books and basketballs. One night, at the end of a blind date that the referee should have stopped in the first round, I took the couch while the lucky lady - who was stranded by a blizzard - took the bed. I felt bad, knowing she'd be haunted by internal regrets and Pappy's nightmarish sounds.

Still, she got a free dinner out of the deal and she got to flee the next morning. The next night, I'd still be in the Universal Building. And so would Pappy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Magic Johnson's final high school game

Earvin Johnson became Magic when he was still in high school, thanks to a sportswriter who gave him the moniker after watching the young star dominate. As the story goes, he couldn't go by Dr. J because that had been taken, as had The Big E. So it was Magic Johnson, double-entendres be damned.

By his senior year at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, Magic was a legend. He led his team to the Class A state championship game against Birmingham Brother Rice.

The footage lives.

Everett won 62-56 in overtime. Two years later, Magic led Michigan State to the NCAA title, and a year after that he won Finals MVP as the Lakers won the NBA title. Three titles at three different levels in four years.

The title game footage is incredible to watch, even if it does look like it took place in 1957 instead of '77. Magic's game was ahead of the times but his hairstyle was with the times. He sported an Afro, which was long gone by the time he scored 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals.

A couple of things:
* Several times Magic drains a little turnaround jumper on the baseline. I watched hundreds of his games in the 1980s and have watched a hundred more on YouTube. Rarely did he use this turnaround jumper in the NBA. Where'd it go? It was, in fact, an Elvin Hayes-like turnaround jumper, but seems to have disappeared as his game progressed in so many other areas.

* Check out the pass at the 54-second mark. A classic Magic look, the type you'd see to Rambis or AC Green in the ensuing years. Unlike AC Green, though, his high school teammate made the layup.

* Magic did most of his damage in the post. He possessed a sort-of-unsightly jumper, a shot that he didn't really perfect until the middle to late 1980s. Even then, it was more set shot than jump shot.

* The analyst offers nothing. I'm not sure who it is, probably a former Michigan legend who only broadcast games every March and ran a used car dealership the other 11 months of the year. "Boy it looked awful easy," chuckle, chuckle. "That's Earvin Magic Johnson," chuckle. "I think he's got his rhythm, Mike." "That wasn't a bad shot, Mike. Wasn't a bad shot at all," chuckle.

* At the 2:40 mark, another great Magic pass. At times he simply overpowers the opponent, looking something like the mustached 14-year-old who dominates 8th-grade basketball games thanks to size alone, but the skills that made him a pro legend and not just a schoolboy one are also on display.

* This game has an insane ending. Everett leads by 2 in the closing seconds. Rice brings the ball up and the guard launches from just inside the halfcourt line at the buzzer...and banks it in! You can see Magic preparing to celebrate even as the ball falls through the net. It's like the shot Butler had that would have defeated Duke in the NCAA Finals last year, or the shot that Fritz Skinner used to beat Worthington Community College on a cold night in 1994 (still very bitter about that one, since he shot it right in front of me). Fans actually come onto the court. But it only tied it. If there had been a 3-point line, obviously Rice would have won. Then again, if there had been a 3-point line Jerry West's famous shot against the Knicks would have won the game and the Lakers wouldn't have lost in OT. Rice also falls, despite the miracle.

* Magic takes over in overtime. A perfect bounce pass for a layup. Then, at the 3:55 mark, a behind-the-back dribble leads to an open-court reverse layup. Even today, more than 30 years later, it's not the type of move you see many 6-9 point guards make. Actually, there still hasn't ever been another 6-9 point guard.

* According to the person who posted the video on YouTube - a person who should be put up for sainthood - Magic scored 34 points, though you wouldn't know that from the stumbling post-game interview.

In the interview Magic sounds like a kid, which he was. His interviewing skills improved over the years, as did his jumper. But the passing and intangibles that made him one of the greatest winners in basketball history? Those skills were already fully formed.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A meandering, disjointed, unfocused ode to New York

Every night after work I sit in the rear of a New Jersey Transit bus and cross the George Washington Bridge. Tonight, like it will be for the next several months, it was dark as the bus barreled over the bridge, and the New York City skyline looked something like it does above. There's really not any view like it in the world; the only rivals might be from other New York City bridges. I'm often grouchy or annoyed on the trip home, depending on how long everyone had to wait for the bus to arrive. Still, I try to look out the window most nights to gaze south. Maybe native New Yorkers get used to such views and maybe transplanted New Yorkers are too cool to appreciate the view, but more often than not, I still find myself looking at it with the same wonder I had the first time I drove over it in February 2002. At least these days I know where I'm going.

I've been in New York City six and a half years now, and I still don't fully appreciate where I live. Maybe I never will. But it's not because of laziness or complacency or indifference. It's simply that a person could live here for a hundred years and venture out every day and they still wouldn't have enough time to soak in all of the history that's a part of the city.

So much has happened here. So much still happens. So much will happen. Remembering how I walked around the city my first few weeks here, my head tilted back, looking up, only needing a fanny pack to complete the caricature of the type of tourist longtime New Yorkers love to complain about, it's hard to believe that it's only taken six years for me to get used to the fact this is now my home.

Last Sunday, about 20 blocks south of our apartment, dozens of people dressed up in strange garb to re-enact an event that happened three centuries ago. November 16 was the 234th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Washington, a key fight in the Revolutionary War that saw the Brits rout the Americans. It was a crushing defeat for the Continental Army, but being that the people in this country can now read about Prince William's upcoming nuptials but don't have to worry about one day being ruled by him, you know that it was not a decisive victory for the Brits.

The Battle of Fort Washington isn't among the most well-known battles in American history, but maybe that's because the wrong side - depending on your accent - won. Still, it's a vital piece of history, a crucial battle that was followed by some of George Washington's greatest victories. And it happened three subway stops from our apartment. Cool.

I can walk five minutes and be on the spot where the Dutch bought Manhattan, an event that changed the fortunes of millions, for better and worse. It practically took place in my backyard - a backyard I, of course, share with tens of thousands of people.

Sometimes it takes a movie to remind me that I live in Manhattan and that I always dreamed of living here but never thought it'd happen, especially after my first attempt failed. We'll be sitting in the theater and New York appears on the screen - perhaps as the setting for a horrible romantic comedy, perhaps while being destroyed by an asteroid or tsunami - and I think, hey, we live there. Millions of people across the world are watching the same thing in different theaters and are thinking about New York's size and chaos and regard it as more of a character than a real city where real people live.

The city can be exhausting, especially on weekends when the subways aren't running on a normal schedule and the lines that are running are improbably crammed even more than usual. The city's not just a museum. People live here and struggle here, fighting traffic, rats, garbage, pollution, neighbors, cockroaches, bed bugs, terrorist threats and ridiculous rents. With all of that, it's easy for a person to forget what drew them here: the lights, the opportunities, the culture, the people, the sites, the sounds and, yes, the history, whether it's the Met or a long-ago battle fought before the United States was even really a country.

I do my best to appreciate the history of any place I visit, so I certainly try and appreciate the history of New York. It's easy to get distracted or caught up in the present. But I want to remember the city's past because that's why I originally dreamed of coming here and is part of the reason I stay here. The myths and the legends helped bring me here.

Right now thousands of people of all ages are dreaming of coming to New York, whether for a week or a lifetime. They want to escape their problems or seize an opportunity. They want to climb the skyscrapers or party underground. They're dreaming of New York. They're dreaming about my home. And that I do appreciate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Worst baseball battery in history

Richard Pryor and John Candy: comedic geniuses.

Richard Pryor and John Candy: not baseball players.

I just finished watching Brewster's Millions, the 1985 movie starring Pryor and Candy as buddies and baseball players. Pryor plays Montgomery Brewster, an over-the-hill pitcher for the Hackensack Bulls who inherits $30 million but has to spend it all in 30 days to inherit the full inheritance of $300 million. His best friend and battery mate - Candy - doesn't understand why Brewster keeps throwing his money away, not realizing that's part of the deal: Brewster can't tell anyone about his situation, or he loses it all. In the end, he succeeds and inherits the full $300 million.

But back to the baseball.

When the movie came out, Candy was 35 and Pryor 44. Candy's age fits the role of a decent semipro ballplayer who's holding on for a few more years in the backwoods of baseball, but his physique certainly doesn't. If David Wells and Greg Luzinski defied science and physics and produced a child together, the unfortunate result might look like John Candy in this uniform. We never see Candy swing a bat, and I have to believe he kept a roster spot because of his leadership with the Bulls' pitching staff. He taunts opposing hitters, throwing them out of their comfort zone, though it appears unlikely he's capable of throwing out any runners.

Then there's Pryor. In the few glimpses we get of Pryor in action, it appears his fastball tops out at about 76 miles per hour. If he was throwing at a dunk tank, he might not have enough velocity to activate the drop switch. Still, he apparently made it as far as Toledo in Triple-A ball and I can only assume that happened in his early 20s. He earns points for creativity: he strikes out a hitter with an always-entertaining Eephus pitch.

Jerry Orbach, or at least his character, manages the Bulls. He does a serviceable job, ably pulling off the cranky, vulgar, seen-it-all manager. At one point he tells one of his hitters he's not a farmer, "You don't have to swing at shit in the dirt." I bet Earl Weaver said that once. The problem, of course, is that Jerry Orbach is Lenny Briscoe, the beloved Law & Order detective. Brewster's Millions came out nearly a decade before Orbach joined the L&O cast, but he's now been retroactively typecast. It's jarring seeing him in other movies or shows, even if those appeared long before Lenny started patrolling New York's streets. While his manager has some good lines, you expect him to quip about a dead body, or threaten someone in an interrogation room, or worry about his drug-addicted daughter. Brewster doesn't help matters later in the film, when he purchases fancy new uniforms for the Bulls. They're blue and tight and when Orbach appears in his, it looks like he's worn a wetsuit to a ballgame.

Orbach's in-game skills as a manager also appear shaky. When the Bulls play a three-inning exhibition against the Yankees - hey, it could happen - Brewster surrenders four runs before Orbach yanks him from the game, telling him he's "gotta" take him out. A bit late, coach. The Yanks had been hitting him hard before he gave up the runs that effectively finished off the Bulls. You have to have the bullpen ready much earlier, though, to be fair, back in those days managers allowed starters to throw more innings, even if in this case a complete game would only be three innings.

The movie's not a comedy classic but it has its entertaining points. At one point Brewster bets on a field hockey game between Loyola and Notre Dame and wins big - much to his chagrin - when Loyola pulls off the stunning upset in a game that was actually previewed in a New York City newspaper. Odd story selection from the editors. He invests in a company featuring an iceberg and other bizarre businesses. The only thing missing is a contribution to the anti-cat-juggling fund that Steve Martin gave to in The Jerk.

Brewster spends and spends and in wasting $30 million in 30 days, he certainly does his best impression of way too many professional athletes. Later in the movie he runs for mayor and in an "unheard of move," spends his own money on his campaign. Unheard of at the time, perhaps. But maybe Bloomberg got an idea from the movie.

Brewster's Millions also forecast some of the populist rage - faux or otherwise - that influenced the recent election. He runs while proclaiming None of the Above, saying that the other candidates are so terrible, people should vote for None of the Above. Surely many people this year wished they had the choice.

I remember watching Brewster's Millions as a kid and being upset at the end that people didn't realize he pulled it off. Everyone thinks he's something of a loser, except for his lovely accountant. I wanted an epilogue as he walked back into the New York night. Did he sponsor another exhibition game, this time against the '86 Mets? Did he run for mayor again, this time on a campaign of All of the The Above? Did he buy the Hackensack Bulls and fire Orbach, or at least purchase better uniforms? And did he finally quit playing ball or did he stay on, firing that weak fastball and nonexistent curve to his overweight friend and catcher?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Missing the first quarter of Lakers games, and other TV atrocities

If TNT broadcast every Lakers game against Western Conference opponents, chances are I would never see the team in the first six minutes of a game. I'd never get to see Kobe Bryant's first mid-range jumper or Derek Fisher's first missed layup and I'd certainly never see the gangly, graceful, bearded Pau Gasol jumping center on the opening tip. That's because anytime the Lakers play the late game on a TNT doubleheader, the early game always, inevitably, runs late. This bothered me when I watched Lakers games at Saint John's in 1997 and it bothers me today. Literally, today.

Tonight the Celtics defeated the Heat - again - in the opening game of TNT's Thursday doubleheader. The Lakers, unless they're on an East Coast road trip or playing in the Midwest, almost always play the second game. It's the overexposure of the Lakers. So be it. Yet tonight, like always, the first game went later than 10:30. And then past the 10:45 mark. Finally, at 11:04, the game mercifully ended and Kevin Harlan sent it to the "voice of the NBA" Marv Albert and to the Lakers game in Denver.

The game finally appeared on the screen with 4:56 left in the first quarter. Damn it. Denver led 13-12 at the time. Who cares, right? Forty-one minutes remain. Nothing happens in the NBA until the fourth quarter anyway. The NBA's boring, etc., etc., etc., etc. I care. Laker fans draped in Bob McAdoo throwback jerseys care. Laker bandwagon fans who think Earvin Johnson was a journeyman center who once played for the Timberwolves care. And TNT executives should care, because it's now been like this for decades and still no one has figured out what seems to be a rather simple solution for these situations: schedule the games for 11 EST. TNT does give a grace period. A 10:30 game usually doesn't start until 10:50 or so. But it often doesn't help, as, like tonight, the early game drags on through a series of LeBron James free throws and timeouts. Meanwhile, Ernie Johnson provides helpful updates about the happenings halfway across the country, but will they give us a split screen? No.

At least tonight's early game was sort of close. The worst is when the early game is a blowout, yet it somehow drags out longer than a Yankees-Red Sox game. As the 20-point contest concludes, they show the score of the late game on the bottom: Lakers 8, Thunder 4. Then it cuts to a commercial before finally popping in on the late game. Show us the game that now matters! Well, that's not actually the worst. There's always overtime.

It doesn't take until 10:30 for me to realize I don't have a chance of seeing the opening of the Lakers game. If halftime of the first game isn't over by 9:40, there's no hope. I'll listen to Charles and Kenny crack their jokes and know that TNT will again lie when they say it's a doubleheader. We're not getting a complete doubleheader. We're being robbed. By 10 p.m., when there are still 8 minutes left in the third quarter, I'll start loudly sighing to myself, a pleasant personal trait. I curse the East Coast, and its basketball teams. I curse the invention of the 20-second timeout.

The same thing happens on ESPN. But at least if they carry a doubleheader, they'll switch it over to one of their other 14 networks, usually ESPN Classic, so instead of seeing the 2002 World Series of Poker, we actually get to watch the first six minutes of a live NBA game.

It's always been like this, of course, and it's not like TNT invented this problem.

As I wrote about before, CBS missed the first four-and-a-half minutes of Game 1 of the 1983 NBA Finals. The Finals! For a golf tournament not named The Masters.

At least during basketball games fans get to see all of the on-court action. Directors don't cut away as Carmelo Anthony rises up for a jump shot to show an overweight, bespectacled man chewing his fingernails in the upper deck, only to return just as the ball's being released from his hands. Yet that's what fans witness on pretty much every baseball telecast, but especially during playoff games. My friends have heard me complain about this a dozen times. I sound like a bitter old man talking about the good ol' days. But still...

The overuse of crowd shots during a game has done more damage to baseball than steroids.*

* I'm sort of in a Skip Bayless-type mood tonight so hyperbole, moralizing and overreaction will fill this post.

Can TV producers and directors please stop showing the crowd and dugout after every single pitch. Stop with the reaction shots. Stop zooming in on the pitcher's face between every pitch, followed by a close-up of the hitter, followed by a shot of a nervous fan in an ill-fitting jersey stained with mustard holding a sign that reads "FOX AND THE RANGERS RULE!" Then a quick shot of the do-nothing manager sitting motionless in the dugout, doing his best impersonation of a human statue in a Times Square subway station. What has a manager ever done on the bench that needed to be shown live? At best we see him touching his cap, at worst we see him picking his nose. Occasionally, though not always, and only when really emotional, he blinks.

By the time the cameras scan back to the center field view, the pitcher's already in motion and they've missed the start of his windup. Stay with the center field camera, I implore you. Stop showing the crowd in the third inning. No one is nervous, no one is that excited. No one is doing something so outrageous that we have to see them. They're sitting, taking their left hand and slamming it into their right in a clapping motion. Show the game. Of course, when a fan actually does do something that is newsworthy - like, say, run on the field nude - the stations refuse to show it. I wish networks would take the same policy to every crowd shot. Show the masses at the end of the game or in the final inning when the home heroes are down to their final shot.

I get anxious, waiting for the cameras to get back in time. I'm convinced they'll actually miss the pitch, and occasionally they do miss the ball coming out of the guy's hand. If Luis Tiant pitched today, no one who watched him only on television would ever know about his bizarre deliveries, but they would know that Red Sox fans like to wear Wade Boggs jerseys and backward baseball caps.

I know, nothing on a baseball broadcast outside of a 20-minute lecture by Tim McCarver on the beauty of the infield fly rule should bother someone this much.

And I know it will never change, so I should resign myself to this TV reality. Each year brings more crowd shots, more dugout shots, more up-close shots that force viewers to miss the big picture. So what's more maddening: Not being able to see any of the game you want to watch because the network refuses to air it, or not being able to see any of the action you want to watch even when the network is airing it? I suppose most fans would say the latter. But since it's the Lakers, I'll have to say the former.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Things could be worse for the Wolves. Or not

At 10:30 tonight I'll turn on NBA League Pass and watch the Timberwolves play the Lakers in LA. Judging by the respective starts for each team, the game will likely be over by 11:10, though it won't officially end for another two hours. The Lakers enter the game 7-0 and have played only two close games as they aim for a third straight title.

The Timberwolves enter the game 1-6, yet it all seems so much worse than that. In their last five games, the Wolves lost to Memphis by 20, to Miami by 32, to Orlando by 42, to Atlanta by 10 (!), and to previously winless Houston by 26. They've become the professional equivalent of a Division II team that's served up as a sacrifice for a Division I team early in the season. Playing the Wolves has to hurt their opponents' ranking in the BCS standings. The outcomes of their games aren't quite as predetermined as a Generals-Globetrotters game, but at this point Washington might be favored by 5 in a head-to-head matchup at the Target Center.

After tonight's game, Kurt Rambis might just stay back in LA, serving as a volunteer assistant under Phil Jackson, trying to forget his tenure with the Timberwolves while the franchise attempts to forget its time under him. Not that it's Rambis's fault. In his first stint as a head coach, with the Lakers in 1999, he had to deal with a young Kobe Bryant and an old Dennis Rodman and San Antonio easily swept LA in the playoffs, which led to Phil Jackson's hiring, Rambis's retreat from the bench, his return to the bench as an assistant and his ascension to Timberwolves head coach. Now he deals with a mismatched roster that has plenty of point guards, none of whom are Stephen Curry, and plenty of small forwards, none of whom possess a consistent jump shot. The good news? They're well on their way to a high draft pick in 2010, which they can use to take a...small forward or point guard.

It's a tough start to a long season. Even for the franchise of Roth, Brooks, Rider, and Lohaus, this is a low point. Remember when fans grew apathetic with the franchise because they only won 50 games each year and kept getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs? Those teams now look like Jordan's Bulls in comparison. But has it ever been this bad, this early for the Timberwolves?

Last year the team also started 1-6, which eventually turned into a 1-15 record. But those six losses didn't resemble the six from this season. The Wolves lost by 3 to the Clippers and by 2 to the Celtics, with an 8-point defeat against Phoenix sprinkled in. Nothing like this season's debacle. The Wolves also began the 2009 season 1-6 (as you'll see, it's a pattern). Yet one loss came in double overtime to the powerful Spurs and another came in overtime against Golden State. They also had a three-point defeat against Oklahoma City. Again, nothing like this season.

The Timberwolves of 2008 also lost six of their first seven games, on their way to a 1-10 beginning. Only two of those first six losses were by double-digits.

After that you have to go back to the 1995-96 season, Garnett's rookie year, to find a Wolves team that started 1-6. But that slow start included an overtime loss to Vancouver and a six-point loss to Portland. Toronto beat the Wolves by 18 and Houston by 22, but no one beat them by 30. Or 40.

The 1995 season? There we go.
Denver 130, Wolves 108
Houston 115, Wolves 85
Detroit 126, Wolves 112
Lakers 122, Wolves 99
Bulls 112, Wolves 100
Celtics 114, Wolves 101

The Wolves lost their first six games that year before defeating Golden State by two. They went on to lose their next seven to drop to 1-13, just to prove the first seven games weren't an aberration. Not a single defeat by less than 12 points to start that season. At least this year's squad opened with a 1-point loss to Sacramento. That Wolves team did scrape together 21 victories, a number the current team will struggle to reach. Credit the leadership of top scorer JR Rider for the turnaround.

Even the worst team in franchise history - the 1992 squad, which went 15-67 under the beleaguered Jimmy Rodgers - had a three-point defeat and a pair of five-point losses in their 1-6 start. For those wondering, Tony Campbell led the team in scoring that year, followed by Pooh Richardson and Tyrone Corbin. Randy Breuer, Tod Murphy, Mark Randall, Luc Longley and Felton Spencer all manned the frontcourt that year for Minnesota, and suddenly the Darko Era doesn't seem so bad.

So is this year's start the worst ever for a franchise that's all-too familiar with on-court fiascoes? Possibly. That 1995 season was ugly. At this point it's like comparing and contrasting natural disasters. What's worse, a hurricane or a tornado? An earthquake or a tsunami? Things are bad for the Timberwolves. And tonight in LA, they're going to get worse.

There might be only one way out of the mess: Fire Childress.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday potpourri: The Godfather, SNL, and KEYC

Louise is unable to sit still and do just one thing at a time. If we watch a DVD, she can not simply watch the movie. She folds clothes, or files papers, or edits manuscripts or talks about how she wishes she could be doing something extra. This occasionally perturbs me, especially if there's a great scene she's just missed because she's distracted by a 12-step plan to reorganize her closet.

"I saw it, honey," she'll say. Yes, but did she appreciate it? Did she laugh at an appropriate volume or was she distracted by her address book? She explains it by saying she can't just watch a movie or do just one thing at a time when she knows she could be using the time to do five, six or seven other things. It's a miracle I ever get her to a movie theater, because I'm sure she feels like a prisoner, locked in darkness, surrounded by germs, forced to focus on the big screen for two hours. I normally don't understand this psychosis.

But today I do. I'm currently watching the tape of last night's Lakers game while also working on a story that's due in two weeks for the St. John's alumni magazine. On the computer I've called up the video feed of the St John's-St. Olaf football game, but I've turned down the audio on that so I can listen to the radio broadcast from the Johnnies announcers. I'm also typing away on the blog and occasionally turning off the Lakers game to watch The Godfather II, which is in our DVD player. Louise refers to this as putting a whole day's activity into one hour.

Some Saturday thoughts:
* This is probably, I don't know, the 50th time I've seen Godfather II. One scene always confused me. After the attempt on his life early in the movie, Michael travels to New York to talk with Frank Pentangeli and plot his revenge against Hyman Roth. During a meeting with the Rosato brothers, a would-be and mouthy assassin attacks Pentangeli and attempts to kill him after saying, "Michael Corleone says hello." Frankie escapes and later, thinking Michael betrayed him, agrees to testify against the godfather. Yet Michael didn't have anything to do with the assassination attempt. It was Roth. So why would an assassin give credit to Corleone as he kills Pentangeli? Wouldn't he want his victim to know who really gave the order? Why say "Michael Corleone says hello" when Michael really said no such thing? It worked out for Roth because Pentangeli later does turn against Michael but the assassin couldn't have known things would break that way. This guy dissects this and other issues with one of the best movies ever made.

* Newspapers are dying. That's the accepted wisdom and to protest means you're stuck in the past and unwilling to acknowledge the present or face the future. Okay. But I still read them. The paper versions, the ones that stain your hands with ink and prove unwieldy on any type of public transportation. I buy a couple every day at the newsstands and read them before and after work. I'll almost always have one on the subway. And a few times a week, a fellow passenger peers down or leans over on the subway to read the paper along with me, as if it's a community activity. I'm reading about the Yankees or chaos in the state legislature and I'll sense - and eventually see - my 1 train neighbor gazing over my shoulder, intently poring over the headlines and text. Maybe he giggles at a cartoon or shakes his head at a ludicrous editorial from Charles Krauthammer. I'll always hesitate for a few seconds, as if I'm really concerned that the freeloader has finished the story. Occasionally the other person will actually sigh when I turn the page, annoyed that I've dared to move on to the next page. Can't I see they're still dissecting the movie review of The Expendables? Buddy, it's 50 cents. A bit more if you buy the Times. You obviously enjoy reading newspapers, you appreciate the reporting, the witty tabloid headlines and the writing. So toss a few quarters on the newsstand and support this dying industry. Or at least stop breathing on my cheek.

* Everyone remembers the classic Schwetty - or is it Schweddy? - Balls skit on Saturday Night Live.

I think I found one of the inspirations for the sketch. Here's another classic from KEYC-TV. This appeared on the Noon News, and apparently aired in 1986. That was a year before I started going home for lunch, so I probably missed this thorough examination of sugar, its benefits and dangers. Some people are meant to be on TV. Some people are meant to work in extension offices and help the public with valuable initiatives that teach people how to live healthy lives. Very few people are meant to work in an extension office and appear on TV.

I'd have more but I have to get back to my article and The Godfather. Also, the Lakers game is now in the fourth quarter. And, my uncle Mike's basketball team at Minnesota West just started their second game of the season and the school broadcasts the games online. I'm learning to multitask. And I'm learning from the best.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chin up: The futile quest for the presidential fitness award

On the way home tonight, I walked past the restaurant that's about half a block from our building. Construction scaffolding stands in front of all the buildings along the row. Tonight, for about the third or fourth time in the last two months, I walked past a guy performing gymnastics on one of the scaffolding bars. It's been a few different men. Tonight's participant was about 35. Muscular. Goatee. Black sweatpants.

Like the others, he did his best Mary Lou Retton routine, swinging along a higher bar before gracefully dropping to a lower one. The judges all gave him 9.0, except for the Russian who handed out a 7.2, much to Al Trautwig's dismay. The guy tonight took a break from the low-wire theatrics to work on his pull-ups. He eased up and down, all the while making eye contact with pedestrians, especially a couple of females. Forget picking up women at a bar, online or in a church. Why woo with words when you can awe them with feats of strength on construction equipment? The gymnastics are impressive, though at this stage in his life where's he going with the skills? While male Olympic gymnasts are older than their 15-year-old female counterparts, he's way past his prime. Perhaps he could be used in a large-scale robbery, at a Vegas casino or a Boston bank, someplace with a laser-secured vault that requires a trustworthy man who's good with a gun and knows how to keep his mouth shut while sneaking into small spaces.

While I'm not entirely sure what this man gets out of his current exploits, I have no doubt that he won a Presidential Physical Fitness Award when he was 11 years old. Every school kid remembers taking the fitness test, striving for that mystical 85th percentile. The 85th percentile. A magical phrase. Percentiles held such power as a kid, whether it was in the Iowa Basics or the presidential fitness test. I envied the kids who achieved this award. A Medal of Honor wouldn't have impressed me as much at that age.

Sit-ups, pull-ups, distance run, sit-and-reach and the maddening shuttle run. Those were the events. Until about fifth grade, I dominated in nearly all of the events. Through fourth grade I was one of the fastest kids in our class, chasing down the slow-moving targets during tag. I managed a respectable number of chin-ups and always cruised through the sit-ups. Then something happened. I lost speed. I lost strength. My flexibility stopped improving and never got any better after that. I no longer had a shot at earning the president's praise for my physical fitness.

The shuttle run seemed like the most unfair event. Our little gym's floor tormented runners, as if an ice rink resided beneath the shoddy wood surface. It was impossible to stop to pick up the little bricks before turning around and speeding toward the other one. That's one excuse I used, anyway.

But chin-ups remained the most humiliating event, from the time I was 12 until the day I turned 18. In a shuttle run, no one can really see just how slow you are. You're talking tenths of a second. Sit-and-reach? Who cares? Everyone - except future cross country stars - hates the mile run. But chin-ups, they're you're out in the open, exposed, dangling from the bar, kicking, grunting, groaning, straining, fighting, weeping, quitting. How long would you hang there before finally giving up? A minute? Two? Occasionally I got away with one pull-up, by doing the jump-up-and-count-that-as-one-and-hope-the-teacher-doesn't-notice trick. The snickers echoed through the gym as your body swayed and your arms shook from the strain. You weren't just disappointing yourself and your parents. You were letting down the president. You were letting down your country. I remember one year they changed it so your palms were no longer facing you, making it even tougher.

An 11-year-old boy is supposed to be able to do six chin-ups. What's the point? What's this measuring? What's the shuttle run measuring, other than shoe traction? Why didn't the president make free throw shooting part of the challenge, or track the speed of a 12-year-old's tennis serve?

I didn't get any stronger in high school, at least not in categories that could be measured with a chart. I had the upper-body strength of a patient who's spent two months in a hospital bed. Only the muscular and light thrived, along with anyone in the wrestling program. An average kid with an average physique didn't stand a chance.

In high school we had a kid who could do like a dozen chin-ups, but on each one he slithered up to the bar, his long red hair wiggling back and forth. It remains the most unique style I've ever seen, not that I've witnessed many chin-up competitions since high school graduation. It was a snake technique and for all I know the president eventually banned it. At first we all laughed, but he quickly earned our respect, especially those of us who remained in the hanging group. Who the hell were we to laugh at anyone?

The fitness challenge isn't just for children. Adults can torture themselves, too. There's apparently an adult fitness competition, but it looks like chin-ups are not part of it. Sit-ups remain, and you can do push-ups to measure strength. Too bad about the chin-ups. It'd be a great way to relive some childhood memories. Find a construction site, round up some local teens who can gawk and verbally mock you, and put on an ill-fitting shirt that rides up as you hang helplessly in the air while your pale stomach dangles over your shorts.

Go for that 85th percentile. Do it for your health. Damn it, do it for your country.