Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Will Tim Tebow succeed in the National Football League? I have no idea. Who am I, Jesus? Now, on the more pertinent question of whether I would prefer Tebow succeed in the National Football League,* I am equally torn: I enjoy watching him play, and I find the schematic possibilities of Tebow intriguing, and I find much of the criticism of him to be based in irrational hatred. That said, I have inexplicable moments of irrational hatred for Tebow myself; sometimes, he comes across more like an Oliver Stone caricature of a football player rather than an actual football player, and this bothers me, too. What kind of person actually refers to the "juice level" in a room? I'll tell you what kind of person: A football player, and by "footbal player," I mean, "the stereotypical notion of an ideal football player that NFL coaches carry in their head." This, apparently, is why the Broncos drafted Tebow in the first round: Because he LOVES FOOTBALL MORE THAN YOU DO. DO YOU LOVE FOOTBALL? NOT AS MUCH AS JOSH MCDANIELS DOES. NOT AS MUCH AS JON GRUDEN DOES. NOT AS MUCH AS TIM TEBOW DOES. NOW DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY.


I'm not trying to pick on Tebow: If he really is this intense, then I wish him the best, and I hope he never gets so jacked up on one of those philanthropic tours of poor nations that he attempts to circumcise a tiger. But this is the funny thing about football: In an essential way, every coach is exactly the same. Josh McDaniels, the head coach of a professional franchise, is searching for the same attributes in his players as a high-school coach in McCook, Nebraska. They want absolute dedication. They want "football traits," whatever that means. And this means an almost cartoonish singlemindedness is a positive characteristic.

Over at Fanhouse, Clay Travis wrote an intriguing screed about Myron Rolle, the Rhodes Scholar who was drafted in the sixth round; Travis claims that teams shied away from Rolle because of his intelligence, because they worried that Rolle was "too smart." I think that's a little too simplistic; I think teams shied away from Rolle because he didn't seem singleminded enough. It's not about being smart; it's about presenting an image that makes you seem as dedicated to football as possible. Rolle slipped in the draft for the same reason Aaron Hernandez slipped to the Patriots in the fourth round: Neither one appeared to care, first and foremost, about football. The reasons for these perceptions are completely different, of course, but equally idiotic. In neither case is there any reason to believe that Hernandez or Rolle won't be as dedicated to their football career as Tim Tebow would be just because they have outside interests, be they in medicine or indoor horticulture. It's just that football people don't think that way. Football people think like Tim Tebow does, and this is why, even if he succeeds in the NFL, he will always be overrated. 

*If I repeat the phrase "National Football League" often enough, I'm told I can secure a job as an analyst on NFL LIve.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On The Mystery of Home-Field Advantage

Not long ago, I engaged in a heated discussion about the impact a voluminous marching band could have on a college sporting event. A good marching band, I said, was worth approximately 2 1/2 to 3 points on the scoreboard for the home team. Now, I was not being entirely serious (there may have been alcohol involved); I have no scientific basis for this assessment, and I am most likely overvaluing the importance of an overweight tuba player, but I was getting at what is, to me, the most baffling issue in sports: The home-field advantage. My alma mater is now touting a study that shows its stadium is the loudest in the country. And I know Penn State is doing this, in part, as an excuse to move the students to the end zone, so as to charge more money for seat licenses. But it raises a serious question--why, in this era of specialization and precision and sports science, can no one seem to overcome the challenge of playing on the road? I mean, it's just noise--the physical impact of a crowd is non-existent. Hand signals can substitute for audibles; maybe one or two snaps per game might be directly impacted, but that's hardly enough to account for a three-point spread. Yet it does.

So why is one of the most colossal quandaries in competitive history something we now just take for granted, without any real empirical explanation?

I'm thinking about this now not just because of Penn State. I'm thinking about this because I've been watching the NBA playoffs, where, it seems, no one can seem to win consistently outside of their hometown's recreational domicile. Even teams that are clearly better than their opposition seem to have a certain expectation that they will lose at least one of two games on the road, and yet no one seems to know why this happens. And it is impossible to measure. Is it the travel itself? Is it the unfamiliar surroundings? Is it the crowd? We don't know. We can't ever know. If there's even been a thorough study of the reasons for a home-field advantage in sports, I've never seen it. I'd like to see it, but I have a feeling it doesn't exist.

I mean, I realize that business travel is not a particularly pleasant experience, unless you are a character in an Ivan Reitman film; but these teams are not traveling coach.* You would think they would adjust their sleep patterns and their practice habits and find ways to negate the home team's competitive advantage in terms of off-court/field factors. And you would think that noise and hostility would not rattle a group of athletes who have endured immense pressure to succeed for their entire lives. And yet it does. And even as sports becomes more wedded with statistical exactitude, this is one element that no one seems able to control. Not even the tuba player.

*Speaking of which, do professional athletes accumulate their own frequent-flier miles? If so, Jamie Moyer must have trillions. I'm guessing the dude could probably use his miles to purchase a Marriott in Mexico City.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Historical Mock NFL "Drafts" Based Entirely On Arbitrary Criteria

A memory: When I was in elementary school, I had a pair of classmates, twin brothers, whose uncle was a broadcaster at ESPN (not named Berman). For some reason, this fortunate familial connection gave them permission to skip class and hang out in the school library, watching a live broadcast of the NFL draft. I'm not sure why they were allowed to do this--I believe they were assigned some sort of menial task that involved recording names in a semi-official "book" of some kind, for purposes unknown--but the result was that I assigned an import to the draft far earlier than most people did. Are there children all across this nation who are skipping school to watch men in suits call out names? I asked myself. It felt like a mystical occult, and I wanted in. Whereas now, it just seems ridiculous.

That said, if I were permitted to pull a Desmond Hume and climb through assorted temporal wormholes in order to draft one player from each franchise, then launch a Bill and Ted-style mission to save the world, these are the men I would choose*:

1. St. Louis Rams
Rosey Grier, DL. Because he is the only All-Pro performer who attended my alma mater, practiced needlepoint, hosted a weekly television show, appeared on The Man From U.N.C.L.E and CHiPs, served as a guest voice on The Simpsons, and crippled the assassin of a major political figure. In fact, I could make a case that Rosey Grier has had the most interesting life of any NFL player in history.

2. Detroit Lions
Eric Hipple, QB. Because I distinctly remember the sight and sound of Hipple being sacked repeatedly, then getting up and coming back for more. Every Thanksgiving, we ate turkey and bickered amongst ourselves, and Eric Hipple would scrape his elbows to shreds on the Silverdome's razor-blade turf.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
John McKay, coach. Because once, when asked what he thought of his team's execution, McKay replied, "I'm in favor of it."

4. Washington Redskins
Joe Washington, RB. Because when I was nine years old, every time I watched Joe Washington, it looked like someone had let loose an extremely fast, extremely diminutive teenager from a Pop Warner league. Also, I used to believe that Joe Washington had some direct affiliation with the history of the Washington franchise, and perhaps even with the history of the city itself. I often wondered the same thing about Jim Brown. These sorts of things seemed too odd to be mere coincidence.

5. Kansas City Chiefs
Barry Word, RB. Because how has a prominent hip-hop artist not co-opted this name?

6. Seattle Seahawks
Kelly Stouffer, QB. Because he is the only quarterback who could make me actively crave lasagna.

7. Cleveland Browns
Tim Couch, QB. Because many years ago, I wrote an extremely long article essentially declaring that Couch would save the Browns' franchise. I went down to Kentucky for a weekend to see him, and I remember he threw one of the most beautiful touchdown passes I'd ever seen, a 50-yard rainbow over the outstretched arms of a defender, and I drank the Kool-Aid, and then I left town before anyone could call me out for it.

8. Oakland Raiders
Ted Hendricks, DE. Because his nickname is one of the five best in the modern history of sports. As far as I can tell (from a cursory Google search), storks do not, in fact, have issues with bipolarity, but thanks to Hendricks, I will never really trust them, especially when I see them in Irish pubs.

9. Buffalo Bills
Phil Villapiano, LB. Because he's a perfectly nice guy (I interviewed him for this story), but his football card was frustratingly omnipresent. I swear, for one brief moment in my life, I had nineteen of these.

10. Jacksonville Jaguars
Keenan McCardell or Jimmy Smith, WR. Because at some point, you would have thought we might have realized the Jacksonville receivers tend to be undervalued fantasy commodities. Yet we still do it.

11. Denver Broncos
Craig Morton, QB. Because he is the first quarterback I remember explicitly liking due to his failures. Every time I watch the highlights of Super Bowl XII, I want to offer him a hug.

12. Miami Dolphins
Garo Yepremian, K. Because he grew up in Cyprus, burning olive pits to stay warm, and then he threw that ridiculous flubbed pass in the Super Bowl, and in so doing inspired an entire generation of kicker caricatures, including the most memorable character on this terrible show.

13. San Francisco 49ers
Tom Rathman, FB. Because he was a fullback who caught passes. What a weird and kinky fetish that was.

15. New York Giants
Frank Gifford, ATH. Because this is still the weirdest and most discomfiting great book I've ever read.

16. Tennessee Titans
Dan Pastorini, QB. Because in my nine-year old consciousness, his name bore a vague resemblance to "pepperoni." Also, as an adult, I now know that he posed for Playgirl, married a Playmate and once starred in a movie called Weed: The Florida Connection, which, if you have to possess a copy of, please contact me immediately.

17. Carolina Panthers
Kerry Collins, QB. Because I am one of the few people on this earth who can say I hung out with him one evening in college, and I was, in fact, far more drunk than he was.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers
Bubby Brister, QB. Because I remember those halcyon days when the great controversy in Pittsburgh was whether to start Brister or Mark Malone. In that context, rampant sexual harassment doesn't sound so bad, does it?

19. Atlanta Falcons
Billy "Whiteshoes" Johnson, KR. Because I cannot remember, not once, watching Johnson play live, but he seems inordinately famous to me, especially for someone who scored six touchdowns in his entire career.

20. Houston Texans
I refuse to acknowledge the Texans as a franchise.

21. Cincinnati Bengals
Ken Anderson, QB. Because in 1982, Ken Anderson completed 70.6 percent of his passes, which, at the time, seemed utterly absurd, but is the exact number Drew Brees managed in 2009. (Also: Why is Brian Griese on this list?)

22. New England Patriots
Mosi Tatupu, RB. Mosi Tatupu! Mosi Tatupu!

23. Green Bay Packers
Lynn Dickey, QB. Another of those late '70s/early '80s signal-callers who seemed to take a constant pounding, yet was actually pretty good for a couple of years. The disco-era Matt Schaub.

24. Philadelphia Eagles
Harold Carmichael, WR. Because he was nine feet tall and caught passes. What more reason do you need?

25. Baltimore Ravens
Bam Morris, RB. Because his appearance in Weed 2: The Texas Connection was not as well-received as Pastorini's.

26. Arizona Cardinals

Stump Mitchell, RB. Because I know of only one other person named Stump, and it would seem both share almost the exact same level of fame. 

27. Dallas Cowboys
Phil Elliott, WR.

28. San Diego Chargers
Charlie Joiner, WR. Because he always seemed better than Kellen Winslow, even though I know he wasn't.

29. NY Jets
Wesley Walker, WR. Because this remains one of the more fun games I've ever watched.

30. Minnesota Vikings
Tim Tebow, QB. Because the law declares he must be in here somewhere. Or everywhere.

31. Indianapolis Colts
Art Donovan, T. Because he's the reason I fell in love with NFL Films, and NFL Films is one of the primary reasons I exist in my present form. I used to go to bed dreaming that Steve Sabol was my father.

32. New Orleans Saints
Fred Weary, DB. Because it's time for this conceit to end.

*I have taken some minor liberties with the draft order, just to upset Todd McShay.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Baseball and Deja Vu

“The use of steroids and amphetamines amongst today’s players has greatly subsided and is virtually nonexistent, as our testing results have shown...The so-called steroid clearly a thing of the past."
--Bud Selig, 2010.

"baseball's drug problem is is going to be the first sport to be free of drugs. The players have had enough of it."
--Peter Ueberroth, 1985.

(Photo: Corbis Images)

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Extraterrestrial Edition)

1. Where Amazing (Finally) Happens

There is nothing in the world quite like the National Basketball Association, which is why most of us have a love/hate relationship with said entity. For six months, thirty teams travel from one major airline hub to the next, laboring through eighty-two glorified scrimmages, only to emerge from their cocoon of indifference one day in mid-April, acting as if they felt this way all along. The NBA playoffs are utterly transformative: Suddenly, elbows are being thrown, and the children of French pop stars are hurling insults at beleaguered cities.* The Nuggets stop pranking each other. Kobe becomes Frowning Kobe. LeBron becomes Hyperdrive LeBron. Everyone is suddenly serious, and combative, and the commissioner deals out unwarranted suspensions. There is no reason** the NBA regular season should not be cut back to 50 games, or even 35 games, the length of the college season.

2. Alien$

If you didn't watch this performance on Saturday Night Live--and there's absolutely no reason why you should have...well, I can't exactly recommend you watch it now. It's like a Weird Al video, if Weird Al had a sex change and donned spandex. But there is a moment at the 3:10 mark when this curious, financially obsessed Scrubs character pauses the action, steps into a shower of lime-colored lasers, and declares, "Did anyone ever stop to think maybe we are the aliens?" If Carl Sagan had grown up listening to Aqua and joined a sorority, this is what he might have become.

Also, brushing your teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels seems like it would not do a commendable job of preventing tooth decay.

3. The Red Sox Are Mediocre Again

Which means single-game tickets should be available in approximately 2016, once the final pink hat is disposed of in a trash can on Lansdowne Street.

*Speaking of which: I enjoy a manufactured controversy as much as the next rabid media mob, but this Joakim Noah thing is ridiculous. And it's not ridiculous because Noah insulted Cleveland--I lived outside of Cleveland for five years, and much of what he says is absolutely correct. It's ridiculous because, well, he's insulting Cleveland. This is the best he can do? There's got to be a cultural statute of limitations on insulting Cleveland, and I believe it expired with the April 1977 issue of MAD magazine. If a guy is going to mouth off, at least come up with some new verses. David Stern is missing an opportunity on this one: He should fine Noah $10K for Unoriginal Taunting. That will set a precedent. Even if won't help the city of Cleveland.

**Other than money, the only reason that matters.

Friday, April 16, 2010

On the End of College Boxing (A Look Back)

Fifty years ago, a fighter at the University of Wisconsin named Charlie Mohr was killed in the ring, spelling the end for NCAA-sanctioned college boxing. I wrote about Mohr (who at one point, underwent shock treatment for psychological problems) at He's a pretty fascinating emblem of a bygone age.

Here's the story.

On Allen Iverson, Packer Fans, and the Creative Process

This is some sort of rambling experiment. If you're more interested in sports than in abstract and potentially nonensical discussions of art and creativity, feel free to skip it.

1. So I'm watching Steve James' 30 For 30 documentary about Allen Iverson (which is excellent, maybe the best of the entire series so far), and there's this moment where he sits down with a local activist, an African-American woman who--understandably, I suppose, given the racial tensions that Iverson's name still evokes in his hometown--expresses the reasons for her reluctance to speak. She isn't sure she trusts James to tell the story properly, in part because he is white. In a way, I get this, but I also found myself thinking, This is the guy who did Hoop Dreams, which is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and which is certainly one of the best portrayals of the inner-city black American experience in the modern age. Yet even this doesn't earn him any leeway?

I suppose that's proof of James' thesis, which is that the brawl that landed Iverson in legal trouble was the most racially divisive event in his Virginia hometown since the civil rights movement. But James' documentary--which is purposely filtered through his own perspective as a former basketball player whose mother is a prominent resident of the town--also reminded me that creative perception is always, on some level, entirely subjective.

2. I haven't read David Shields' Reality Hunger yet, though I want to. The book is comprised entirely of passages that Shields lifted from other texts and from himself, and one of major points of it (I think) is that we spend far too much time attempting to draw a firm line between fiction and nonfiction, when in fact, there is no real line. Every piece of writing, every documentary, every feature film, is, at some level, filtered through the subjective lens of the author. Maybe we don't want to believe this, but it's true.

3. My third book comes out in four months. This makes me very nervous. I'm nervous for the obvious reasons--I'd like it to sell, so I am able to write more books and pay my electric bill, and I'd lke it to be well-received, to validate my own perceptions--but I'm also nervous because it still seems incredibly strange to spend two years entirely immersed in a project and then one day just spill it out into the world. When you spend that much time doing anything, you have a tremendous train of thoughts about what the themes of your project might be, about what the controversies might be, about what certain people will like and dislike. You need to have these ideas in order to guide whatever thesis you might be going after, but at some level, you know that whatever you think will be seen as wrong. Other people will view your book in completely different ways than you do. They will perceive certain subtextual elements that you never could have imagined.

With this book, I imagine there will be people of my generation who will have seen the '80's in completely different ways than I did. They may have grown up in Green Bay, hating Jim McMahon. They may have been raised in Tuscaloosa and found Bo Jackson an arrogant prick. They have their own biases, their own memories, their own points of view, and when their memories meld with my own, they may equate to something I never could have imagined. They will write reviews on Amazon, and on Goodreads, and they might raise points that are far more complex than mine, or they might just firebomb my entire thesis.

4. This is the first sort-of media mention of my new book. It was in Library Journal, and it's just a one-sentence description, and the most exciting thing about it was that I found myself listed directly below a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. I didn't mind their blurb at all; I thought it was accurate. Still, just seeing an outside party describe my book at all felt like being detached from my own body; how do they know what I'm writing about? How can they encapsulate two years of work in a single sentence?

For such a long time, this book was mine. It existed only in my own head, and it was colored only by my own thoughts. I suppose the beauty of working in a creative medium is that we get to foist our perceptions on the world in an attempt to somehow contribute to society, but this is also an unceasingly strange way to live, because people will never quite perceive our perceptions the way we perceive them.* It doesn't matter what you do. It doesn't matter if you're Steve James. When you choose to create something, and then allow it into the world, you're always on your own.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Abbreviated Edition)

 1. Affirmation That All the Best Books of the Summer Will Be Re-examinations of '80's Icons

As if you needed more proof,* now there's this. If Cusack chooses to complete the Better Off Dead trilogy, I'd say Gen X's work is pretty much finished.

2. Big Ben

Unfortunately, despite the trend toward '80's redux, it would seem public apologies and mullets remain irreconcilable. Seriously, dude, have you been to Pittsburgh? I love it there, but the only thing a nice suit does in that town is get between you and your Prmanti brothers sandwich.

3. Note to Miley Cyrus

"Stilleto" does not rhyme with "memo." Also, when I nod my head, it generally indicates my affirmation of whatever proposition is being advanced. No need for repetition.

However, this tweet, from the incomparable Amy K. Nelson, taken entirely out of context and using the metaphorical rather than the literal definition of "coming out," allowed me to envision my favorite entirely mythical US Weekly cover of all time. If a member of the New York Yankees were to come out of the closet with the aid of a pop megastar, this would pretty much be the apex of tabloid America.

*Pre-orders welcome.

Monday, April 12, 2010

On the Wisdom of Bud Selig

All right, so I know it's become a sport in itself to bash Bud Selig, and I also understand that I'm pretty hard on baseball around these parts, but I listened to Selig spend an inning in the booth during the Twins-Red Sox game this afternoon,* and honestly, I'm not even sure what game he's talking about anymore. "Baseball is more popular than ever," Selig said, more than once, and while it is true that attendance may be at record levels, let me make a radical presumption here: This does not mean baseball is more popular than ever. In fact, this is such a patent falsehood that I was waiting for Selig to follow up by promoting General Motors stock. Suggesting baseball is more popular than ever is the moral equivalent of suggesting that the teletype machine is more popular than ever. And suggesting that baseball has essentially conquered all of its major issues, as Selig did later in the interview, while deflecting concerns about night games and dreadfully slow play, is one of the most brazen acts of propagandizing I'd witnessed since Baghdad Bob fled for the Emirates.

I know there are a lot people who still love baseball as much as they ever have--but there are far fewer than there used to be. And I also know those of us who are disgusted with baseball and those who continue to watch it find Bud Selig equally repulsive. Every commissioner of a major American sports league is something of huckster--it's part of their job, to stretch the truth, to attempt to control the narrative--but Selig really is either the most disingenuous commissioner in the history of American sport, or he is the most naive. Often, it seems he might be both.

*I was at the gym, which I figure grants me an exemption in regard to this.

Friday, April 9, 2010

On Tiger: A Few Quick Thoughts

1. Yeah, I didn't really understand the commercial, either (New Nike tagline: "Tiger Knows Dead People.") The question that Tiger's "father" seemed to be "posing" was about probing for explanations, about promoting discussion, whereas everything Tiger has done in the wake of this scandal has been engineered to shut down the dialogue. This is the another reason why it makes no sense as anything other than a skeevy ploy to somehow misdirect the discussion.

2. Here is the second reason why it makes no sense: The day before the commercial was released, the chairman of Augusta National, Billy Payne, launched a searing moralistic tirade against Tiger's actions. That is to say: The leader of perhaps the nation's second-most exclusionary, misogynistic and potentially racist organization sat in moral judgment of the world's most famous Cablinasian. If Nike had sat on the commercial, this would have been the story, and Tiger would have come off as Job-like. Instead, we were left to debate an advertisement that elicited patrimony in order to entice us into buying shoddy apparel constructed by Chinese schoolchildren.

3. I covered a few Masters back in the decade before the previous decade, and while the galleries were largely male, the ratio of males to females in Tiger's gallery, at least in the camera shots I saw, seemed especially striking. This is not exactly surprising--I once spoke to a woman who worked her entire life at a restaurant directly across the street but had never actually found a way inside; it's not like Betty Friedan was on the guest list--but it does seem like Tiger's welcoming reception at Augusta has as much to do with the demographics and nature of the Masters as anything else. I expect at the U.S. Open, or for that matter the Greater Greensboro Open, the reception could be far different. Though the results may not be.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Midwest Edition)

1. Best Hypothetical Game Ever?

Astute commentor Panicstreak raised the question as to how the Alt-Universe in which Gordon Hayward sinks that 40-foot jumper would play out. Would it be bigger than Flutie's Hail Mary? (A: Yes, because the Flutie game occurred during the regular season.) Would it be bigger than Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World"? (A: Yes, because Thomson's home run was not widely televised and copiously replayed.) Hayward's shot would be mashed up on YouTube, incorporate into hip-hop lyrics, and used as a shorthand for good triumphing over evil. Hayward's shot, if it goes in, has the athletic signifiance of Star Wars. The only play with more potential long-term significance than Gordon Hayward's Hypothetical Game-Winner would be the David Tyree Catch, which will, over time, probably be regarded as one of the three most famous plays in NFL history. The only difference between the two is that Tyree held on to the ball. And Hayward missed by three f-ing inches.

2. Blago

I cannot explain why Rod Blagojevich chose to appear on The Celebrity Apprentice any more than I can explain why I continue to watch TCA, despite its eight-hour running time. With the possible exception a celebrity chef I've never heard of, everyone on that show is utterly loopy, but none more than Blago, who (spoiler alert!) was tossed from the Donald's boardroom this week for not knowing how to activate a computer. I used to give politicians who uttered banal idiocies the benefit of the doubt, but after watching Blagojevich bumble and gladhand his way through midtown Manhattan, after watching Blagojevich fail to make a single crucial decision about anything over the course of four weeks, those days are over. My baseline assumption is that at least 40 percent of politicians are essentially functional illiterates with good hair and a firm handshake. I used to believe that James Inhofe was a cynical power broker working in clever tandem with the energy establishment to debunk global warming; now I have to imagine he really believes the sun is plugged into a socket in the Gobi Desert.

3. David Remnick

No reason, except this book will most likely be excellent. And I'd like to work for him someday, so I'm going to mention him gratuitiously.

(Photo: John Biever/SI)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On The Last Shot Of The Season

So let's say that shot goes in. Let's say Gordon Hayward's 40-foot heave at the buzzer, instead of bouncing hard and then caroming off the rim, takes a sympathetic bounce and drops through the twine. Here is what we can say for certain:

A.) This would be, without question, the greatest shot ever made by a basketball player named Gordon.
B.) This would be, without question, the greatest and most beloved shot in college basketball history, if not in the history of American sports.

As it is, we are left to ache. Not in a long time can I remember feeling so terrible after watching a game in which I really had little or no stake (Meaning: Penn State was not directly or indirectly involved). Butler was clearly Duke's equal; in terms of gameplay, they did not deserve the mantle of underdog, but in terms of symbolism, they did, and that's what made Hayward's heave so deflating--we were thisclose to changing the perceptions that have guided college basketball for the past thirty years. We were one bounce away from "mid-majors" shedding that ridiculous label, one unkind rim away from invalidating every public utterance in the history of Billy Packer's career. It would have been a beautiful symbolic egalitarian moment, and of course, I hope it is anyway...I hope Butler's run* proves that coaching and fundamentals can trump raw talent, that maybe college basketball has reached that point that the NBA hit a few years ago, when carefully crafted European talent began to eclipse the raw egotism of the American game.

But it's also clear, as Charles Pierce writes, that the NCAA and The Powers That Be have no real stake in permitting such a transition to occur. Egalitarianism is fine in the early rounds, but there is a sense, at least among those who make decisions, that it is safer to craft a tournament that facilitates a Final Four that is nothing like this one, a Final Four in which storied programs meet storied programs and Gordon Hayward never even gets an opportunity to hurl that shot toward the heavens. Of course, I hope I'm wrong about this. I hope that somehow, paradoxically, a 96-team field proves an even more brutal slog for the top seeds, but the odds of that happening are not good. Miracles are called miracles for a reason.

*And to a lesser degree, we should credit Duke and its libertarian coach for developing talent, as well, since Jon Scheyer was an absolute joke two years earlier. But really, F 'em.

(Photo: Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

Monday, April 5, 2010

On the Curious Perception of Tonight's Game

OK, let me just try an experiment with numbers here, even though I vehemently dislike numbers. These are the RPI rankings of the teams Butler (#12 RPI) has defeated so far in the NCAA tournament:

UTEP: 38
Murray State: 57
Syracuse: 5
Kansas State: 6
Michigan State: 28

And here is the RPI rating of the teams Duke (#3 RPI) has beaten:

Ark. Pine-Bluff: 183
Cal: 20
Purdue: 16
Baylor: 9
West Virginia: 4

Now, given those numbers, Duke's run is certainly impressive. But Butler's is equally impressive. both teams defeated two teams ranked in the top ten in the RPI. Both teams defeated essentially interchangeable Big Ten squads crippled by the lost of one of their best players. Duke had that early victory over California, but also had the benefit of a first-round game against one of the lowest-seeded teams in the field. Also, Butler is playing this game at home, hasn't lost a game since Dec. 22; its worst loss of the season was to No. 62 Minnesota. Duke's worst loss of the season was to No. 98 North Carolina State.

All of which brings me to my point, which is that it would seem, at least to me, that these two teams are essentially evenly matched. And yet the point spread is seven, and one of the most reputable basketball columnists in the country, Pat Forde, is comparing this to Villanova-Georgetown and N.C. State-Houston. Is it merely because of the programs' histories? Is it because there is a large contingent of Americans who would prefer to set up Duke for an "epic" defeat? Is it because Butler's best player (and their coach) look like refugees from the Apple Dumpling Gang? Because otherwise, there really is no explanation for this.

Butler can win this game. And if they do win this game, it will certainly alter the perception of the "mid-major," and it could impact college basketball in lasting ways. But the victory itself would not be much of an upset at all.

Friday, April 2, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. Greenberg

It is no doubt a sign of my inherent immaturity that I still consider Kicking and Screaming* to be my favorite comedy of all time.** That movie, of course, was a product of a youthful Noah Baumbach, who went on to write/direct Mr. Jealousy (OK), The Squid and the Whale (excellent), and Margot at the Wedding (horrifying). It was with some trepidation, then, that I went into Greenberg, because a movie about an unlikeable character played by Ben Stiller seemed like the plot synopsis of seven of the ten worst movies of the previous decade. But the brilliance of Greenberg is that its essentially a grown-up version of Kicking and Screaming, a story about a man who never really recovered from the mistakes of his youth. All the regrets that the characters in Kicking and Screaming anticipated about their future existences have come to pass in Greenberg. It is a beautiful Los Angeles tableau. It is subtle and nuanced; it is so good that it almost redeems everything Ben Stiller has done since Permanent Midnight.***(Well, except for Duplex.)

2. 96 Teams

Don't get me wrong--like everyone else, I find the notion of the NCAA tournament expanding to 96 teams to be a craven example of how nothing matters in modern sports besides the bottom line. But I have to be honest--the idea of more basketball being played is not going to somehow deter me from watching more basketball. Which is the very reason why the NCAA is doing this in the first place.

3. Horsehide

I am told baseball season commences shortly, so I will dispense with predictions:

A.) The teams with the largest payrolls will win their respective divisions, with the exception of one "small-market" sleeper, which will then permit Bud Selig to justify his entire tenure as commissioner.
B.) The Yankees will win another World Series, permitting their fans to utter idiotic statements like this.
C.) Whippets will become the new clubhouse drug of choice.
D.) Alex Rodriguez will briefly date Jennifer Aniston, then, upon their breakup, will tearfully confess to an addiction to Papaya King hot dogs.
E.) The Cubs will remain the Cubs.

*Not the inane Will Ferrell movie of the same name, for I refuse to acknowledge that movie's existence.
**That my girlfriend once approached Carlos Jacott at a Legal Seafood restaurant in Boston and whispered, "Go away, cookie man," in his ear is one of the primary reasons I'm marrying her.
***It also prominently features Galaxie 500's "Strange," which has to be the best song ever written about Twinkies.