Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Opening Doors

I am ashamed to say that I spent an inexcusable amount of time yesterday afternoon staring at a live image of a door. I am no less ashamed to say that this door was attached to a gymnasium in Memphis, Tennessee, a city I have visited once in my life, and have no particular affinity toward or grudge against*. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see, nor what any of the thousands of others (who flooded the accompanying chat room with varied levels of absurd juvenilia) expected to see, either. Theoretically, we were all waiting for John Calipari to come shambling through that door and make some kind of dramatic pronouncement--that he was leaving to become the basketball coach at Kentucky, or that he was staying as the head coach at Memphis. (And then half the people in the chat room could start hurling insults at the other half, amid the cryptic and perverse pronouncements about the endowment of certain males and the cup size of certain females.) But, of course, it's not like John Calipari's office is trapped in some kind of Dharma initiative time warp; he has the Internet, too, and I'm presuming he just snuck out a door that was not being monitored by a local television station, and beamed across the universe.

And yet we still watched. We watched a door.** And behind that door was a basketball coach who would probably admit that he gets paid far too much money to do what he does. And I suppose this is an example of what perplexes me about modern technology: So much of it is about "removing the filter" of the so-called mainstream media, and yet at times, when we remove the filter, we realize that perhaps the filter was there for a reason.

Reporting is often boring. It is filled with hours of drudgery, hours spent staking out a parking lot, staring at a door, waiting to ask questions that won't be answered. In the case of sports, this can make you feel awfully stupid. For instance: In a previous job, I once had to stake out Pedro Martinez at a midtown hotel on the day before he announced he was signing with the Mets. When Pedro showed up, I shouted something at him, he very politely ignored me (if such a thing is possible), he got in an SUV, and he left. It was useless, just as this shot of the door was useless, but I suppose this is what people crave. They want the filter removed. They want immediate and instant gratification, and most of all, they want to shout at each other while getting it (or not getting it). They want to know what's going on under the surface, with men who have taken on far more importance than they ever should have in the first place.*** They want to stare at that door, even if never opens, even if never reveals much of anything about the person inside. Even if it reveals much more about them.****

*Though I did find Graceland so overwhelmingly "American" that it actually made me a little nauseous in places.
**As I was writing this, I just checked again. The door is still there, and the people in the chat room seem to be discussing (repeatedly) the following: A.) Whether "Horner is gay," B.) Whether "MichaelSean could bench that door," C.) The size of Sasquatch's member. Also, it appears to be "PeanutButterJellyTime."
***"Why do we have to attach mythical qualities to the millionaires who coach college sports?" wrote the Commercial-Appeal's sports columnist, Geoff Calkins, who is worth listening to for many reasons, including that he is the only sportswriter I know who went to Harvard Law School.

****Update: The door now has its own Facebook page. I am only shocked that it took this long to happen. By Wednesday afternoon, I expect the door will be in celebrity rehab.

Friday, March 27, 2009

On LeBron

I am spending my days writing a great deal about the mythology of Bo Jackson and how it fits into the ethos of the 1980's, and the tendency is to presume that nothing in modern life can compare to what happened then, simply because the proliferation of online media has rendered us all hopeless skeptics.
And then: LeBron.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Future of Journalism, Sportswriting, Etc. (Part I of 7,324,565)

When I was 27 years old, I quit my job. It still feels like an utterly insane decision, even though it wasn't, even though I'd been contemplating it for more than a year. I had been living in Akron, Ohio for five years, working as a sportswriter at the local newspaper, and I had been accepted to graduate school in Boston, and I had saved up enough money to live for that one year of school. Also, this was in 2000, at the tail end of the Internet boom, and I thought, worst-case scenario, I could move to San Jose and get a job working on a start-up of a website that would, say, teach cats to speak Farsi or sell Barry Bonds memorabilia.

Part of this decision, I admit, was based upon quality of life: I was not from Akron, I did not have family in Akron, and while I had made some real friends in Akron, I wanted to get back to the East Coast. But I also made this decision because I had grown entirely impatient and disinterested in the things I was supposed to be covering. Somehow, I had come to dislike sports.

Which brings me to Joe Posnanski's searching and introspective post about sportswriting, about whether we all tend to take things too seriously, about whether that professional distance we all learn about in school and vow to carry into our professional careers somehow wrings the joy out of the whole endeavor. And I do think Joe raises some interesting points, and I do think he brings up some things I have often wondered about myself, about this new age of information purveying: For instance, I believe one of the reasons I left the business was because I simply wasn't cut out for the daily grind of newspaper beat reporting. I knew it, and my bosses knew it. And it is a grind, just as any job becomes a grind at times--it may sound like great work, especially at this moment in our nation's history, to attend baseball games every day and hang around in locker rooms and punch out a story every evening, but there are many things about it--endless travel, bad food, disagreeable subjects--that were not very much fun, at least for me. That sounds blasphemous, but there you go.

Recently, a young and supremely talented sportswriter for a major newspaper landed in a bit of a kerfuffle because he admitted to an interviewer that he didn't enjoy covering sports. This sportswriter is almost the exact age I was when I jumped out of the business in Akron. No question, his timing was terrible, and he should have known better than to say this out loud, but I understood exactly what he meant. You have to be kind of a special breed to cover a beat like that; the guy I used to work with in Akron, Sheldon Ocker, has been covering the Cleveland Indians roughly since the days of Lou Sockalexis. He's the kind of guy who never seems to be having fun, but I assume that he is, since he hasn't taken a day off during the baseball season since Joe Charbonneau's rookie year.

This kind of work is not for everyone. It requires a certain amount of drudgery and detachment and persistence. Sometimes, when it exposes the unseemliness of the sporting world, it tends to make people unhappy, and there are people who don't like to be unhappy when they read about sports, who simply want to run away from their lives and into this world.

So I think what I'm saying--or at least what I'm trying to say--is that in an ideal universe, stories like this (by Yahoo's Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski, an astoundingly well-reported piece which may bring down the Connecticut basketball program) will find a way to survive and co-exist with the more irreverent incarnations of new media, with Deadspin and the Big Lead and the Bill Simmons podcast*, with all the little snippets of information that make up the big picture in this new world. It should not be one or the other, and yet it is much easier, and much simpler to advocate for these simpler (and less ethically thorny**) pleasures.

Don't get me wrong: In a way, I'm happy all these things exist, and if they existed when I was 27, my career might have been completely different. But I also worry whether all this emphasis on the new is somehow going to leave us with less.

*I cannot begin to tell you how much time I wasted reading Simmons' columns in the period between May 2002 and early 2003, when I worked a 9-to-5 at a trade magazine that may have been the most boring publication in the world, if not for the presence, in the same building, of Convenience Store News. But this is another story.
**And much cheaper, in terms of cost to produce.

(Photo of Shirley Povich by Lynn Povich, from NJ Jewish News)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Well, that was weird

So Penn State just beat Florida, at Florida. In a basketball game. A men's basketball game.*
And yes, I know it is the NIT, and the only people who actually care about the NIT (even the quarterfinals of the NIT) are people like me, people who generally have nothing else to care about when it comes to postseason basketball...people whose NCAA brackets are filled out, each year, with a certain nihilistic despair. But given the history, I still feel like this is one of those Cats and Dogs, Living Together moments in life.

*And the best player on the floor was this guy, Jamelle Cornley, who is essentially down to a single shoulder.

(Photo: Chris Knight/Patriot-News)

Monday, March 23, 2009

On the Pros and Cons of Network Television

Like many of you, I've probably watched more hours of CBS in the past four days than I have in the previous year (with the exception of 60 Minutes, my lone hour of geriatric channeling per week).* This is because I generally do not watch television shows centered around A.) Forensic Investigators, B.) People Who Murmur at Spectres, or C.) Fractions of the male species. And so perhaps this is my own ingrained bias, but I just feel like CBS has never really "gotten" the ebb and flow of the NCAA tournament. Clearly, there are other rational folks who feel differently, but there was a moment sometime on Saturday afternoon or Saturday evening or Sunday morning (the days all blend together now) that was so egregious it almost seemed like a bad parody--that was the moment when my network feed actually cut away in the middle of a potential game-winning shot...to the image of another team, in another game, in a faraway city, emerging from a time out. Now, this potential game-winning shot did not fall, so in the end, perhaps you might say no harm was done. But that is kind of beside the point.

The point is, it continually vexes me why CBS refuses to resort, at moments like this (and there were several over the past four days), to the occasional split-screen shot. You see, there are many of us who spend our days on a computer, teleporting between several windows at once while simultaneously downloading a Scrabble application to our IPhone, listening to This American Life podcasts on ITunes, and Skyping our aunt in Tacoma. Therefore, the sight of two games being played at once--on a single screen!--will not, in fact, bring on uncontrollable seizures.*** But my guess is that several dozen people called their local affiliates to complain many years ago, and Andy Rooney didn't like it very much****, and therefore CBS, being what it is, has come the conclusion that it is "too distracting."

Too distracting? On the network that employs Jennifer Love Hewitt?


Now, I realize I am being slightly unfair, so let me compliment CBS generally for its choice of broadcasting personnel. Most notably: Bill Raftery. It is almost unimaginable that a guy who's been doing games for more than two decades has managed to A.) Avoid the general wrath of the blogging elite, B.) Maintain his enthusiasm, while not simultaneously smothering his knowledge of the game, and C.) Manage to make his catch-phrases seem fresh, while incorporating new language that is ridiculous and nonsensical and endearing. At one point, I recall Raftery said something that seemed like a vaguely perverse double entendre, but because this was Bill Raftery, it just sounded like a very happy man speaking happily about basketball. And that made me happy.

*In fact, did you ever notice that Andy Rooney is often noticing things that most people noticed in 1973?**

**Though, to be fair, the statute of limitations on noticing that Andy Rooney often notices things expired in 2002.

***I mean, Mike Figgis directed an entire movie in split-screen--nine years ago! (OK, it wasn't very good, but again--beside the point.) Not to mention most of us now have televisions the size of livestock barns.

****Didja ever notice that everything moves so fast these days?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Flashback: Gary McLain

I'm writing a book about the 1980s. It's centered, more specifically, around the year 1986, though it's not just a month-by-month account of events. In fact, it jumps around a little bit to get at the ethos of sports during that period, and how it related to what was going on in America during the Reagan years, and how it brought on what I call the modern age of American sports. It's about big money and big personalities and it's about drugs--specifically, cocaine, and how the death of Len Bias changed American attitudes. I'm not quite sure yet how it will all come together, but I guess we'll find out soon enough. Anyway, consider this a March Madness outtake, of sorts--in fact, it's a piece I wrote for ESPN last year, part of a larger package about the tournament that wound up not running. It's about Gary McLain, who played on Villanova's 1985 national championship team and then became infamous*:

In the spring of 1985, days after leading his team to the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history, the point guard for Villanova University stood in the Rose Garden of the White House, marveling at the copious amount of dandruff on the back of Ronald Reagan’s head. Gary McLain would later admit he found this moment exceedingly weird, and not just for the obvious reasons. He was paranoid and confused. He thought, What if I pushed this dude’s head?Just a little? Would I cause an international incident? He watched as Reagan read from the notes he’d been given, and from McLain’s muddled synapses, a rather provocative sentiment emerged.

He thought, “This guy is the smoothest con artist in the world.”

At the time, McLain was a pretty wise grifter himself. On the bus ride from Philadelphia to D.C., he had managed to snort half a gram of cocaine in the bathroom, a remarkable feat of deception (not to mention balance). He had been doing drugs for years, before practice and during games and after games, and despite repeated “warnings” from his coach (“If I hear it again...”), he had gotten away with it each and every time. He had done cocaine before the first game of his freshman year. He had smoked an obese joint before a game against North Carolina, scoring 10 points in 34 minutes in a 56-53 win. And the primary reason he hadn’t snorted anything before that iconic 66-64 NCAA championship victory over Georgetown (where he scored eight points) was because he used it all before and after the semifinal victory over Memphis State (where he scored nine points).

We know all of this because McLain, the MVP of the title game, laid out his story two years later, in the March 16, 1987, issue of Sports Illustrated. By then, we had embraced the mythology: Top-seeded Georgetown, with its 7-foot center and 6-foot-10 coach and its cadre of scowling angry young black men, played the thuggish bully. And No. 8 seed Villanova, with its rumpled Italian dumpling of a coach, swept through the tournament as the peppy underdog.

But what else could we expect? This was the eighties, after all, and the smooth-talking commander-in-chief apparently in need of Selsun Blue was a celluloid cowboy who rode into office on the power of his own mythology. And there is no better exemplar of the what myth can accomplish than the War on Drugs, which, between the time McLain sniffed lines at the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky, and when he emerged from rehab to share his story (reportedly for $40,000), became a political tool for both Reagan and Congressional Democrats. Here was a distinct brand of American fear-mongering, with policies that demonized drug users and generally scared the hell out of white America. By the end of 1985, according to Dan Baum’s book Smoke and Mirrors, “the depiction of white cocaine users fell by as much as two-thirds while that of black users rose by the same amount.” The death of Len Bias in 1986 and the subsequent adoption of mandatory-minimum sentences only heightened the paranoia. And those of us who watched The Wire know little has changed since then.

So, given two decades of perspective, and given what we now know, let us re-examine the two coaches in that seminal game, at a moment when drugs were plentiful and the NCAA was in its wild-west period (in the same ‘87 SI in which McLain spilled his guts, the magazine reported that the Governor of Texas, while head of Southern Methodist University’s board of regents, had approved payments to football players from a secret slush fund).

First, there is Villanova’s huggable little Cabbage-Patch doll, Rollie Massimino, who declared that a lack of “solid evidence” against McLain prevented him from taking action. This, despite the fact that McLain took to dealing small amounts of coke in his junior year. Perhaps Rollie, in the spirit of eighties conservatism, was practicing a laissez-faire policy. Or perhaps Rollie was merely ignorant, “not as up on drugs and the drug culture as he was on Xs and Os,” according to Rev. John P. Stack, then Villanova’s dean of students. Yet it is worth noting that Rollie eventually moved on to UNLV, where he was fired after cutting a side deal with the university president to raise his salary by $375,000, and Cleveland State, where he was let go after a series of questionable recruiting decisions.

And then there is John Thompson. Derided for his militance and an intimidating overprotectiveness of the athletes in his Georgetown program, Thompson, once referred to as the “Idi Amin” of sports by a Utah columnist, appears to have been far more prescient than most of us realized, even before he showed us his softer side by becoming the Barbara Walters of the NBA. In 1989, according to a story by Mike Wise of The Washington Post, Thompson heard that his star center, Alonzo Mourning, had befriended a notorious drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond III. Thompson called Edmond into his office, tore into him, and told him to stay away from his players. Before Edmond was sentenced to life in prison without parole, he apparently did as he was told.

Meanwhile, these days, Gary McLain is—what else?--a motivational speaker. It is a second act we are accustomed to seeing these days, another example of a man both embracing and defying his own mythology.

(Photo: Villanova University)

*For what it's worth, I've picked this year's Villanova team to make the Final Four out of the East Region, in part because I think Jay Wright is kind of a cool guy. That is as close to a guarantee you can get that this will not happen.
(Postscript: Somehow, I got this part right, and yet got everything else completely wrong.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Modern Technology, Juvenile Delinquency and the Pool

I believe the first (and only) time I have ever won an NCAA tournament pool came in 1987, when Indiana defeated Syracuse. For this reason, and this reason only, I am forever indebted to Bob Knight (who, on an vaguely related note, is also the subject of the best Sports Illustrated profile I have ever read). And yet I am proud to say that I was the kid who, beginning in the seventh grade, began Xeroxing pool sheets clipped from the newspaper using my father's University account, strong-arming lunch money from classmates and teachers, and marking the sheets with a bright red marker that was most likely stolen from my history teacher's desk.*

So: Thank you, NCAA tournament, for allowing a gawky kid from central Pennsylvania to say that he engaged in felonious activities as teenager.

*As a part-time Luddite, there are many things that concern me about the proliferation of the Internet and the pervasiveness of online technologies. But I will say this: If nothing else, the Internet is unquestionably the Guttenberg Bible of the NCAA tournament pool. Clipping the bracket from the newspaper and sizing it correctly in the Xerox machine was, for my spatially-challenged self, the equivalent of making an origami swan out of waxed paper.

(Photo: Bill Haber/Associated Press)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On the Long and Illustrious History of Penn State Basketball

This is a story that begins approximately thirty years ago, in a little bandbox of a gym that smelled of sweat socks and stale hot dogs. I cannot tell you precisely when it began, because I do not remember the first Penn State basketball game I ever attended; it is possible I have blocked this memory out, as one might with any number of slightly more serious childhood traumas. In scanning the documented history, the first game I distinctly remember attending occurred on November 28, 1980, when Penn State defeated Ursinus, 101-68. I did not know then, and do not know now, what an Ursinus is, or where it is located, or if it is infectious--it has always sounded more like a brand of baby aspirin than an actual college. But this is what Penn State basketball has traditionally been about: We perform astonishingly well against schools with names that sound vaguely like pharmaceuticals, or against vo-tech academies, or against hairdressers' colleges. (Philadelphia Textile, anyone?) Against actual colleges--well, let us just say the record over the past three decades has been decidedly, um, mixed.

I am writing this on Sunday afternoon, as I watch the announcement of the NCAA tournament pairings; Penn State, despite a valiant season (and a win over the New Jersey Institute of Technology), has fallen just short of a tournament bid for what only seems like the 19th consecutive season. Actually, it has been since 2001, which was the year that my alma mater somehow blundered its way past North Carolina and into the Sweet Sixteen. That whole thing seemed illogical and surreal. It is perhaps the only modern sports moment I can remember that actually felt like an out-of-body experience.

This is because I know the history. This is because I have been following and watching Penn State basketball games for the better part of three decades, and I know where we came from. And somewhere, I still have the scorebooks to prove it.

I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, you see, in a town where, if football is king, basketball is something like the royal food-taster. It exists in a vacuum, ignored until it is suddenly thrust into a brief moment of national relevancy, and then it vanishes again for another decade or so. After a while, I kind of figured this is the way it should be; I kind of figured that any major college whose football program and basketball program manage national relevance at the same time is somehow cheating fate. Those who support Ohio State and Florida do not know what it means to truly suffer; those who support Ohio State and Florida do not know what it is like to watch a Division I basketball team with a 6-11 center (nickname, pre-Bull Durham: Nuke) who is simply not athletic enough to actually dribble a basketball.

Well, I have seen this. I have also seen passes fly into the stands and I have seen coaches so exasperated they've nearly lost their minds and I have seen 10-point leads blown in the final 45 seconds and I have seen epic games lost in two and three overtimes. I have been a fan of a program whose high watermark in the 1980s may have come in '85, when a guard named Craig Collins made 95.9 percent of his free throws, thereby setting a national record. I have watched a forward named Tom Hovasse, an awkward sharpshooting redheaded who broke his nose and was forced to wear a mask that made him look like a hybrid of Richie Cunningham and an ostrich. I have seen the inimitable Frank Brickowski, who somehow played 73 years in the NBA despite having no discernible skills, and I have seen Calvin Booth (ditto), and I have seen John Amaechi, who was/is perhaps the nicest and most intelligent athlete I have ever met, and who, next to a young Chris Webber, appeared to actually be wearing concrete shoes. I have witnessed the brilliance of Carl Chrabascz and Mike Iuzzolino and Elton Carter (who only sounds like a character from the movie Clueless). I have met a genial skeletal dude with a fade who nicknamed himself Q-Tip and a power forward with a considerable rear end who called himself Big House.

Over the years, from the age of 5 to the age of 17, I actually kept a scorebook at many of these games, for reasons I cannot explain, except it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, if only because nobody else (including the official scorekeeper) seemed to be paying attention. Over time, I expanded my scorebook to include rebounds and assists and steals, until I left for college, at which point I realized this scorebook did not bode well for my chances of having a girlfriend before I turned 30.

I have seen four coaches in three decades: Dick Harter, a short-fused former Marine lieutenant who could not stand to be there more than five years before jumping to the NBA, where he did not have to deal with the likes of Dick Mumma (a center whose name, I can assure you, personified his style of play); Bruce Parkhill, a disarmingly handsome man and an outstanding bench coach who lasted 12 years before departing under circumstances that were never really explained; Jerry Dunn, a longtime assistant coach who never seemed particularly excited to be anywhere, let alone on the Penn State bench; and now Ed DeChellis, a balding former Parkhill assistant who seems perpetually neurotic, like a poor man's Jeff Van Gundy.

Perhaps I have lost you already, for speaking about the lore of Penn State basketball is nothing like speaking about the lore of Penn State football. Discussing the history of Penn State football is like breaking down 1960's Rolling Stones albums; even those people who don't follow music probably know something about Beggar's Banquet. Discussing the history of Penn State basketball is like analyzing the oeuvre of an obscure Akron band that opened for the Feelies back in 1985. In a way, this is why I have always liked it better. It is a well-kept secret--it is like a cult. The Cult of Mike Peapos. The Cult of Michael Joseph. The Cult of Steve Wydman and Nate Althouse and Greg Bartram.

I can go on here. I can tell you about 1983, Parkhill's first season, when Penn State still belonged to the Atlantic-10 conference, when my brother and I listened to the first round of the A-10 tournament on the radio, dreaming only a single postseason victory over the likes of St. Bonaventure (we lost by 14). I can tell you about 1991, about two guards, Freddie Barnes and Monroe "Money" Brown (who later went to prison on charges of cocaine trafficking), leading Penn State to the Atlantic-10 tournament championship and then springing an upset of UCLA in the first round of the NCAAs. And I can tell you about 1993, about the Lickliter Conspiracy, when an official's beguiling and indefensible call prevented an upset over Indiana, then the No. 1 team in the country.

Most of all, I can tell you about Rec Hall, a 7,000-seat gym on the west side of campus where Penn State played until the mid-1990s. I can tell you that even now, Rec Hall is the loudest gym I have ever been to--the bleachers, where the students sat, extended onto the floor itself, so that you could actually whisper in Jalen Rose's ear when he tried to inbound the ball from the sideline. Soon after I graduated, the team moved across campus to the Bryce Jordan Center, a sterile 15,000-seat arena that hosts monster-truck rallies and Tim McGraw concerts and is generally half-full for basketball games, because most of the prime seats are held by people who bought them simply because the purchase of basketball tickets affords them the privilege of being able to buy football tickets
It is not the same anymore, and the older I get, the more I realize that my complaints sound like empty nostalgia--but I do believe that when it comes to gyms, this is one thing that the new economy of sports has completely ruined. When it comes to gyms, in my mind, smaller is ALWAYS better (See: Cameron Indoor).

Anyway, that's the story. It is a history any fan of a perennially underachieving franchise can relate to; it is the same reason a longtime Cleveland Indians fan feels his history is more authentic and more personal than that of a Yankees fan. And because of it, some selfish and nostalgic and entirely irrational instinct buried deep within my psyche is glad that this Penn State team didn't make the tournament, and hopes that they never make it big, and that they never become a perennial power.* In a way, this history is one of my oldest and most prized possessions; it is difficult and awkward and intimate and seasoned with outsized ambition. These moments, these names, these scores--these are some of the oldest and most pleasurable things I own.

*Though generally, this instinct is overpowered by the pipe dream of Talor Battle somehow leading Penn State to the Final Four before he graduates, at which point my head might explode.

(Amaechi photo by Jonathan Daniel)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Here's the thing:

I don't know if last night's eight-part miniseries (two halves, six overtimes) involving Syracuse and Georgetown actually was the most memorable college basketball game I've ever seen. I guess I won't actually know the answer to that question for several years, when in the midst of an organic conversation at a hypothetical tavern that may or may not exist yet (in a city where I may or may not live right now), someone asks me the question--"Hey, there, person I have met at some point in the past (and/or future), what is the most memorable college basketball game you've ever seen?"-- and then I will determine whether this game immediately and instantly comes to mind. My guess is that I will still cling to some vague romantic notion that the Big East games I watched as a child, games involving Walter Berry and Pearl Washington, were somehow "better," but this is obviously nostalgia speaking.

It is true that the "greatest" game and the "most memorable" game are two completely different things. It is also true that duration does not necessarily indicate quality (See: Benjamin Button, trans-atlantic flights, cricket),* but a large part of what made this game so unbelievable is that it just kept going and going. In the end, it was like watching a bunch of guys in a random gym running their seventh pickup game of the day; at one point, I think Syracuse was down to two walk-ons, a team manager, a security guard and an 11th-grader at Stuyvesant High School. At another point, Paul Harris was so exhausted he actually got stuffed by the rim, which, I believe Sean McDonough pointed out, probably hasn't happened to him since the fifth grade. And that's what made it memorable--in an age when major college basketball is played at an almost unfathomably high level by ridiculously talented athletes, this game broke all that down. In the end, guys were actually falling down for no apparent reason. In those moments, we could relate to the game itself in ways that we could never relate to, say, a Clippers-Heat showdown: Because the imperfection is simply more explicit. This game, to quote a friend, was proof why college sports are far better than professional sports, and this was also proof that there are certain members of the blogosphere who are determined to make everything in modern sports seem categorically bad. I cannot say for certain, but my guess is those people will look awfully misguided 10 years from now, when we become nostalgic about this night.

*It is also true that I spent a disproportionate amount of my childhood awaiting a game that would go to a fourth overtime, just to see if the network graphics would show that the game had gone to "quadruple overtime." Unfortunately, the modern-day method of stripping the score at the bottom of the screen, using only numbers, ruined this for me. Can you imagine the thrill of seeing "sextuple overtime" on your screen last night? That would have made this a truly memorable evening!

(Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

Monday, March 2, 2009

On football and progressivism

Here's my latest ESPN.com column, a follow-up to a piece I wrote several months ago about a high-school football offense called the A-11. It has now essentially been banned by the rules committee of the National Federation of High Schools, for reasons that, at least to me, seem to have more to do with concerns about progress than the claims of bad sportsmanship purported by the critics in the piece. I happen to think football is the closest thing we have to a national game in this fragmented modern age, and I also think the fight over the A-11 is an interesting metaphor for our times.