Thursday, May 27, 2010

On the First Review

No link as of yet, but Booklist seems not to find Bigger Than the Game an entirely repulsive account: "...Weinreb does a fine job showing the symbiotic relationship between those athletes and the unfettered capitalism encouraged during the Reagan years."

Of course, reviews of one's work are entirely unpredicable and nerve-wracking. Some authors, in the interest of objectivity, promise to publish every review of their book, positive or negative, on their website. I feel no such compulsion. Especially if Joe Queenan somehow gets involved.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On The Jersey Bowl

I'll admit it: I hate February in New York. It is a conglomeration of the worst elements of the city, everyone dressed up in mountaineering gear and cursing and shoving past each other on sidewalks narrowed to meager footpaths by 12-foot snowdrifts the color of bile. And if February in New York is bad, I have to imagine that February in New Jersey is worse, just by default.

That said, I'm pretty excited about the 2014 Super Bowl. I never thought this would happen...a cold weather Super Bowl...but now that it has, it seems like nothing but upside to me. The arguments against it--with the obvious exception of the safety hazards, which are dwarfed by the fact that football itself is a safety hazard--all seem kind of ridiculous and contrived. "Is it fair for teams to potentially alter their game plans dramatically in the face of wintry conditions?" asks SI's Jim Trotter, and my answer to that question is: Are you kidding me? Isn't this the very definition of football, the thing that sets it apart from climate-controlled pastimes like football and hockey? Maybe the game will be sloppy, and maybe it will be ugly, and maybe it will neutralize some of the modern elements of the game itself--maybe it will wind up 7-3--but why is that a terrible thing? Football fans who watch the Super Bowl would appreciate the change of pace; non-football fans who watch the Super Bowl are far more interested in the commercials. So why is it acceptable for Green Bay to potentially play an NFC Championship game in a wind-chill of minus-59, but the Super Bowl must be contested in a Disneyified greenhouse?

I sympathize with the notion that cold-weather games are never as fun for the players or the spectators as they are for the television viewers, but the NFL sold this game as the ultimate made-for-television product many years ago, then completely abandoned the very nature of the game itself for a bland rotation of domes and palm trees. On television, nothing looks cooler than a snow bowl. I hope it happens in February of 2014. I just hope I happen to be on vacation when it does.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On The End

I watched the first season of Lost on DVD with my girlfriend. She resided in a 400-square foot apartment in the West Village; I essentially lived there with her. This is how we learned to live together; one night, when her couch had been removed and her boxes had been packed and we prepared to move in together, we watched several episodes while sitting on pillows on the floor. That's one of the hard things about the ending of a long-running television show: It marks the passage of your life from one era into the next.

Lost was the first show I remember us watching together, the first show that we both fell into all at once, mainlining five and six episodes in a night, catching up on the entire first season and the first few episodes of the second in a matter of weeks. It sounds kind of stupid and naive to admit it now, but Lost introduced me to a number of concepts I'd never really considered in depth before, including, but not limited to: Buddhism, the book (and film) Lost Horizon, C.S. Lewis*, The Stand**, Philip K. Dick, Watership Down, Mama Cass, Hume, Rousseau, B.F. Skinner, and several dozen others. Many of these were red herrings, and I knew they were red herrings, but I didn't care--the whole point of Lost, at least to me, was to lose yourself in the minutiae, to become obsessed with exploring the questions rather than presuming that the answers would unfold simply and unremarkably.

You might have heard this somewhere, but Lost ended last night. It ended without answering many key questions, and this bothered certain people, but I think it's pretty obvious at this point that those people were watching this show for the wrong reasons. I guess being a Lost apologist is a little bit like being a baseball apologist during the steroid era: You know there are things that just don't add up, and you know the game you're watching is inherently flawed, but you are there because it just feels right, because as much as you enjoy breaking down VOIP and WHIP and OPS, there is something inherently compelling about the players themselves. You do not stop watching merely because it does some silly things on occasion.

So I'm not going to apologize for apologizing for Lost, even when it stumbled (and I don't think it stumbled in the end--I think it embraced its most important elements, and earned its sentimentality, which is a rare thing). If television shows increasingly serve as touchstones for our culture, Lost may be the most important cultural artifact of the 21st century: It never compromised its underlying intelligence, and it embraced the Internet paradigm in the best possible way, and yet it never lost sight of the one lesson that every creative writing teacher since the beginning of time*** has emphasized, which is that character comes first. And if I'm being honest, I can't think of a television show that changed my very character more than this one.

*I'd read those books as a kid, but Lost made me go back and look at them again.
**See above.
***Or M.F.A. programs.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On New Discoveries

I've been dealing with some health issues (more annoying than serious), so my apologies for the sporadic posting around here. But if there is one advantage to being sick as a freelance employee, it's that it frees me to spend my days reading novels and watching films. Here's what I've discovered:

1. Charles Willeford. Willeford is most famous for writing a book called Miami Blues, which was made into a forgettable film starring a young and suave Alec Baldwin. This is a travesty, because Willeford is kind of a genius, if only for The Shark-Infested Custard, which (apropos of its inexplicable title) is one of the darkest and weirdest novels I've read in quite some time. Go, right now, and read the first two chapters; you'll either find it brilliant or perverse (or both). As I get older, I become more and more convinced that mystery novels and sportswriting have a great deal in common: There is a tremendous amount of chaff, but the best in each genre is as good as any writing being done, anywhere. Well, Willeford was essentially Elmore Leonard before Elmore Leonard existed. He died more than two decades ago, but anyone who can write lines like this: "Hank came into the living room, looking and smelling like a jai-alai player on his night off"...deserves a lasting legacy.

2. Between the Lines. I have no idea how a relatively plotless movie about an alternative newspaper in Boston ever got made--not to mention a movie about an alternative newspaper in Boston starring half a dozen recognizable and likeable actors in the infancy of their careers--but it sure is intriguing to watch, if only for a 12-year-old Jeff Goldblum.

3. A False Spring. Maybe you know Pat Jordan from his Deadspin antics, or his Times Magazine profiles, or maybe you don't know him at all. Either way, this book is a revelation; it's a book about Jordan's failed career as a minor-league pitcher, but it has as much to do with baseball as Friday Night Lights has to do with football. Jordan does not hold back; rarely does the narrator of a memoir portray himself as essentially an immature jerk, but still manage to craft an endearing narrative. I'm still not sure how he did it, but it's worth seeking out, even if, like me, you long ago stopped really caring about baseball.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Angry Men

So basically, Phil Jackson will say anything at this point, if it may afford his team some kind of miniscule competitive advantage. I don't know if this makes him a genius or just an arrogant Zen-infused bozo, but I suppose it works, because it generates animosity where none exists, and that seems to be the most effective motivator. There is nothing particularly likeable about the Lakers or the Celtics at this point in their history, and they seem to prefer it that way; they continue to generate granite blocks on their shoulders for reasons that are entirely illogical--at times, it seems like they don't even like each other very much--but also fundamentally effective. I suppose that's the model for the modern champion in the NBA: You have to be ornery and miserable. Anger is the new success, which is why the Suns are doomed.

So maybe that's LeBron's problem. Maybe he's had it too easy. Maybe someone should kidnap his dog; maybe if Delonte West had actually made a move on his mother, he might have played less like a catatonic. Maybe he should sign with the Clippers, just so he can learn what it feels to hate.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On Jumping the Shark

Strange happenings on Tuesday night: I skipped off from Cavs-Celtics to watch Lost for an hour, and when I came back, the Twittersphere was abuzz with schadenfreude: Both for an athlete and a television show, each of which had seemingly set us up for disappointing conclusions. Of course, this is the worst thing about the Internet: Lost is not over, and Cavs-Celtics is not over, but because of the instantaneous ability for everyone to respond to everything, it already feels that way. It feels like LeBron's career is a failure, and it feels* like six years of Lost are a failure. This is ridiculous--I actually have a weird feeling the LeBrons will pull it out tonight and then lose Game 7, just to maximize the Cleveland heartbreak factor. But watching LeBron on Tuesday night--his body language, his demeanor--was one of the strangest things I've ever seen. It was almost as if he suddenly felt the weight of all those decades of Cleveland failure, and absorbed them into his skull. It was almost as if the mythology bled into the reality.

The most powerful scene** I've witnessed in my sportswriting career came in the Cleveland Indians locker room after Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. I stood in front of a veteran pitcher named Charles Nagy, who had just given up the game-winning hit. And Nagy just sat there, wearing a soggy T-shirt and a pair of tights, staring at the carpet. He had struggled throughout the playoffs, but he'd actually pitched well in relief that night. There is nothing athletes hate discussing more than curses, yet it honestly didn't feel like that team had been done in by the futility of the city of it represented; it just felt like their luck had run out.

LeBron on Tuesday night felt different. How can he not feel the weight of all these questions, of all this uncertainty, of the considerable expectations he's built up for himself? And it's not over, and he still has a chance to make it right, but LeBron is not just battling the Celtics anymore. He's fighting against the mythology he's built up for himself. He's fighting against the mythology of an entire city. And he's fighting against those people who expect any great cultural creation to inevitably end in disappointment.

*To some people, though not to me. While I thought this week's episode was relatively weak, the reason it was weak is because Lost has always been a character-driven show, and this was an answer-driven episode. Ambiguity is always better than absolutism.
**Or at least, the most powerful scene that didn't directly involve a human tragedy.

Monday, May 10, 2010

On Clear Eyes and Full Hearts

I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about television. I do this quite a bit now, because this is a great time in America for quality television. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie as intense as last week's episode of Breaking Bad, or saw a movie as atmospheric as an episode of Mad Men, or saw a movie as mythologically powerful as an episode of Lost. The best one percent of television is better than it has ever been because it is more "real" than ever before, even when it is as fantastical as any of the programs I just mentioned.

But anyway, this particular conversation centered around the return of Friday Night Lights. And the truth is, we couldn't wait for it to return to network television, because we wanted a show that made us somehow feel satisfied. Every week, Breaking Bad has the potential to tear our perceptions of good and evil to shreds; terrible things happen, and we feel more and more frightened, and the characters descend further into darkness. Lost--well, the beauty of Lost is that it is a giant thematic question mark. On Friday Night Lights, bad things happen, and they occur in semi-realistic ways,* and yet we still feel good because we know resolution will eventually arrive. We know that these characters are inherently decent. FNL is the one show that makes me truly happy to exist.

I watched the first episode of the new season of FNL last night. I will admit, I have no way of subjectively judging it anymore. It evokes a feeling in me that is different than any show I've ever seen; it encapsulates everything I love about modern television, everything I love about football, and everything I loved about Buzz Bissinger's book and all the versions of it that came after (including my own). Somewhere in there is the reason I chose to write about sports, and perhaps the very reason I chose to write at all. I now often watch college football games with FNL scenarios in mind, because as absurd as they might seem when being enacted on network television, they sometimes carry real-world relevance. While every other show on television is preoccupied with expanding the definition of what television can become, FNL adheres to an old-fashioned sort of moral code; and yet it does so in a way that feels modern and relevant--even its sentimentality is offset by its naturalism. I can't imagine there are many people who read a blog like this one who aren't watching this show, but if you're one of them, please don't wait any longer. This show could change your life. Or at least, it might feel that way.

*With the exception of the unspeakable Season 2 plot twist, which shall forever be ascribed to network idiocy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On L.T.

 For what it's worth, I researched and wrote a few pages about Lawrence Taylor in my new book.* For those who are too young to remember, or were simply unaware, his history of bad behavior is pretty remarkable; in college, he scaled six-story buildings, knocked out car windows, took bites out of glasses and chewed them, and drank cases of beer in a single night. He drove a gold Mercedes and blew through toll booths at full speed. His cocaine paranoia was so bad at one point that he apparently staked out the woods of his New Jersey home, seeking out interlopers who didn't exist. He simply didn't buy into the antiquated notion of athletes as role models; he didn't even pretend. If I may be so indulgent as to quote myself:

Here was a man who could handle anything, an athlete who embodied the id of the decade, who seemingly lived his life by Ronald Reagan's 1980 inaugural declaration that the era of self-doubt had ended.

These days, it can seem surprising and off-putting when a carefully managed professional athlete's bad behavior trickles into public view. But Taylor was a new breed of athlete, a product of the '80's, one whose entire career was based on a lack of self-control, both in public and in private. In fact, he actively spoke of defying the establishment; he never really cared about the consequences. And, if these latest allegations are true, it appears he still doesn't.

*Pre-orders welcome.

On Girls Against Boys

I wrote this piece for about a girl in Boise, Idaho, named Sara Maras, who has raised a great deal of controversy by playing lacrosse with her boys' team rather than the the girls' team.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On LeBron and Home

Chris Broussard--whom I worked alongside at a once-proud newspaper in Akron, many lifetimes ago--has written an insightful piece for today about LeBron's decision to accept the MVP trophy in his hometown, and what that might mean. Broussard's take: LeBron is staying. I tend to agree. I tend to think that outwardly, more than any major sports star in recent memory, LeBron is something of an unmitigated goofball; whereas Jordan generally embraced showmanship when it contributed toward his cold and mercenary aims, LeBron--perhaps even moreso than Magic--is willing to embrace showmanship purely for the sake of narrative tension. (That's why no one would be truly surprised if LeBron's elbow injury is, in fact, a ruse to render this postseason more interesting.) LeBron is one of the first megastars of the reality television era, and I tend to think this whole free-agency gimmick is a way to build up the narrative stakes. I tend to believe that LeBron wants, in his heart, to re-sign with Cleveland; I tend to believe that the only way he signs somewhere else is if Cleveland somehow (idiotically) forces his hand or otherwise "disrespects" him*, and he has no choice but to go elsewhere in order to maintain his dignity.

Honestly, I lived in Akron for five years and I heard only one other person speak about Akron the way LeBron did in his press conference. That person is my friend David (who wrote this excellent book), and David has lived his whole life in Akron, and at this point, I can't imagine him ever leaving. If LeBron stays, even if he never wins a championship, he immediately becomes the most beloved athlete in the history of one of the most storied sports towns in America, a place where sporting success really does subsume everything. In New York, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, he becomes another cog in the machine. And in LeBron's head, I don't think that narrative is nearly as compelling.**

*What exactly I mean by this, I'm not sure. I just know contract negotiations are odd things.
**Disclaimer: Just in case you're reading this in November 2010, and LeBron is playing in a backcourt with Derrick Rose, let me state: I could be competely wrong about all of this.

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)