Thursday, June 23, 2011

On...In Case You Missed It...

The top five and other assorted musings can be found over at Grantland.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On The Week's Top Five

1. Dirkness

There has been much lamentation in the mainstream hyper-socialist media about the demise of the sports nickname, but here is the truth: In this year's likely NBA finals matchup, the two best players are likely to have such distinctive first names that they do not require nicknames at all. In fact, I recently asked myself, who is the second-greatest basketball player named Dirk? In retrospect, suppose the answer is obvious, but it is at least a little strange that a large percentage of the world's best athletes almost seem to self-select by their own unusual nomenclature. Did the fact that Dwyane Wade's mother preferred unconventional spelling propel him to greatness? Were LeBron and Eldrick part of some grand cosmic plan? This is a ridiculous question, I realize, but then again, if, in 1991, Renny Harlin were asked to devise some sort of German superhero to combat Hans Gruber in a Die Hard sequel, there is at least a 53 percent said superhero would be named "Dirk." That's all I'm saying.

2. Heat Revisionism

There is a difference between appreciating the way a team plays and appreciating it as an entity. Charles Pierce appears to conflate the two here, and this seems to have become the conventional wisdom among hard-core basketball geeks--that somehow the Heat deserve our support because they are now living up to their potential, that somehow we should forgive LeBron because he was simply acting in his own self-interest. But here's the problem with that: Before The Decision, I always had this notion that LeBron was more self-aware than we realized, that among the mega-stars of the athletic universe, LeBron was at least 3.8 percent Andy Kaufman, that he was almost willing to toy with our perceptions of him (remember the puppet commercials)? I can't even explain where this came from; maybe it was just something as facile as the way he grinned. But now I have come to realize that LeBron is none of that, that he may be the greatest athlete to ever play basketball, but he is not a particularly interesting character at all. So faced with a choice between him and a superhero named Dirk, I will choose the German every time, even if said German's boss is a budding Donald Trump.

3. A Brief Observation

Waiting in line for a marriage license is one of the strangest experiences I've had since the entire process began, largely because we bided our time in line judging and evaluating every single couple in line with us. And since this was Brooklyn, there were Orthodox Jews, hipsters, and pregnant Ukrainians--it was a reality show waiting to happen. 
4. Reading

A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

5. Listening

Friday, May 20, 2011

On the Week's Top Five

1. Carmen's Complaint

I've read most of Philip Roth's oeuvre. I once took a class in which we read nothing but Roth novels. I will admit, I am not an unbiased observer when it comes to Roth, and how much of that has to do with the fact that I am also a cranky Jewish male, I cannot say; but anyone who says that Roth "doesn't rate" as a writer is clearly not worthy of commenting on his work at all, let alone judging it. Even if you think Roth's work borders on the misogynistic--even if you think his hatred of women is palpable and disturbing--you cannot deny that in terms of the pure craft of writing sentences and crafting plots, there is no one in the latter half of the 20th century who has done it as well as Roth. To contend otherwise is to shed all credibility as an arbiter of writing. Which is why I've never really trusted British people in the first place.

2. And While We're At It... are five potential Roth entry points:

The Great American Novel. If you enjoy sharply hyperbolic fairy tales about mythological baseball leagues.

Portnoy's Complaint. If you enjoy carnal relations with animal products.

Goodbye Columbus. If you enjoy coming of age (and or starting at the beginning).

The Plot Against America. If you prefer your Roth straight and unadorned.

Patrimony. If you prefer your Roth straight and unadorned and memoirish, and if you have a complex relationship with your father.* 

3. Coming Out

Here's the difficulty for the first gay athlete who chooses to out himself while still active: He cannot really plan ahead. If Branch Rickey had one advantage in signing Jackie Robinson, it's that he could choose the player he felt was best built to endure the difficulties he would inevitably face. The first gay athlete will have to rely more on the fact that whatever team he plays for would be willing to accept his homosexuality and to protect him from the maelstrom that ensues, which is what makes this story about college basketball coaches' potential acceptance of a gay athlete actually kind of disturbing: None say they would actively discriminate, but many say they would hesitate to recruit a gay player, which makes me wonder--not if we're ready as a society for a gay athlete to emerge (we obviously are), but if there is enough of a support system in place to allow that athlete to emerge on his own.

4. Reading

Pamela Colloff, on a Texas murder story that would have made for an even worse plot twist than what actually happened during Season 2 of Friday Night Lights.

Alex Pappademas on teenaged werewolves.

5. Listening

The Outfield, "Your Love." Because there was a point in my childhood when I listened to the .45 of this song, on repeat, for an entire afternoon. And because Josie's been on that vacation for a hell of a long time.

*In other words, if you are a male.

Friday, May 13, 2011

On The Week's Top Five

1. Spiking the Football

In 1965, a New York Giants wide receiver named Homer Jones, having crossed the end zone with a football in his hands, chose to slam said object to the grass in celebration. Hence the birth of the ostentatious gesture known as the "spike," which 46 years later, our commander-in-chief utilized in metaphorical language to discuss why he declined to release photographs of a mass murderer with a considerable hole in his face. Now, depending on which cable news programs you watch, you may find this refreshingly humble or you may find it hopelessly naive/falsely modest, and you may claim that there is no direct correlation between the national atmosphere fostered by presidents and the attitudes of professional athletes, but here's something I was wondering about, in the wake of the president's statement: Are we witnessing a restoration of modesty in sports? I am thinking specifically of several of the young stars in these NBA playoffs, most notably Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, who, at least at this point in their careers,* seem to legitimately embody a sort of humility that hearkens back to a bygone era. Not to mention, in the back and forth between the players and owners in the NFL, most reasonable humans seem to side with the players, which has earned them a new level of sympathy. So--could we be on the verge of an era when "spiking the football" suddenly seems ostentatious and uncouth, when touchdown celebrations are muted, when quiet cool is the default position?

2. Well, Probably Not...

...because there are still the Miami Heat, who grow increasingly unlikeable with each game they win, with each half-hearted apology LeBron James makes, with each opponent Dwyane Wade inadvertently cripples, with each attempt to rile up a fan base that clearly has little to no idea who exactly it is cheering for. At this point, the Heat's only mistake is in not embracing its villainy. Quit apologizing, LeBron. Embrace the dark side so that we may be allowed to embrace it with you.

3. The Most Deflating Paragraph of the Week

“The last thing you ever expect is that somebody you revere will mislead you,” said Alex Davis, 38, who bought a $500,000 unit in Trump International Hotel and Tower Fort Lauderdale, a waterfront property that Mr. Trump described in marketing materials as “my latest development” and compared to the Trump tower on Central Park in Manhattan.
4. Reading

David Grann, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes

Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

5. Listening

A few years ago, future wife and I were in Los Angeles, listening to a radio show emceed by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols--which was, I will say, one of the greatest radio shows I've ever heard--and in the midst of all this Jones was discussing Jethro Tull, and he mentioned flutes, and then he said, "When you hear flutes, you know there are hippies about." This is pretty much all I think about when I listen to "Aqualung," which happens about once every sixteen months or so.

Anyway, I don't believe there are any flutes on this new Fleet Foxes album, though there are oblique discussions about laboring in orchards and contemplating the stars and reciting incantations. It is hippie music through and through, and I really, really like it. Which means, I guess, that I should start taking flute lessons.

*If you reading this in 2016, there is a distinct possibility that both of these men will have done something self-aggrandizing and social distasteful that will completely alter the narrative about them. But, at least for now...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On The Week's Top Five

1. OBL, Part I

Here is the thing that may be forgotten: For approximately one hour after the president of the United States called a press conference on a Sunday night on the first day of May, no one seemed to know exactly what it was for. That in itself is almost as remarkable as the capture of the most-wanted terrorist in the world. We live in a world that is post-suspense, post-surprise; everything is leaked and nothing is secret, not even the most base and uninteresting cables involving domestic protocol with Norweigan diplomats--but somehow, for that hour, the biggest story of the decade remained entirely unconfirmed. Weirdly, in the past year, there have been precisely two live televised moments that have engendered absolute suspense: One involved a the escape of a perceived villain (LeBron James), and the other involved the capture of an actual villain. So it goes.

2. OBL, Part II

I've never seen a crowd quite like the one that clogged the streets of my hometown on the night we learned OBL was apprehended. It is fascinating that the killing of a terrorist could somehow draw a bigger crowd than a victory over Ohio State, and I'm sure part of it was the timing of finals week and the need to blow off steam and the fact that Penn State students will utilize any excuse to gather in the streets and block traffic, but underlying it all I have to imagine there was something genuine here, in the fact that these gatherings took place on campuses across America, in the fact that a generation that has grown up with almost universally terrible news about its country finally found a reason to embrace it. You could argue that they were too blithely celebrating death, but it would ignorant not to recognize that they also believed they were commemorating some kind of rebirth.

3. The Dumbest Article of the Week...

Manages to malign the endings of both Cheers and The Sopranos for both ambiguity and "glumness," which, of course, is exactly what made them two of the best endings in television history.   

4. Watching

Solitary Man. The second-best Michael Douglas, post-"Michael Douglas" movie of all time.*

5. Reading

Grantland. Opening salvo here and here. 

*This is number one. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On A New Venture (Of Which I Am A Small Part)...

You may peruse details here, if that kind of thing interests you.

On The Week's Top Five

1. Royalties

You know what upsets me far more than garish ceremonies celebrating a vestigial institution? It's people who utilize garish ceremonies celebrating a vestigial institution in order to engage in self-righteous condemnation. Let us say, for instance, that you are a sports fan, and you condemn the royal wedding largely because it is an exercise in garish symbolism. Does this mean that you are also in favor of the abolition of marching bands? Of school mascots? Of player introductions? Of uniforms? At some level, myths and symbols infuse every aspect of our culture, but nowhere more than sports. You may argue about the need for/cost of such symbols, but to completely disregard the notion that these symbols hold emotional weight for a great number of people is as ignorant as declaring that pep rallies are a national embarrassment.

2. The Culmination of the NBA Playoffs...

Will be that moment when Kobe Bryant finally engages in physical assault on Pau Gasol.

3. Proof of Life

You know the best part of those early seasons of The Apprentice? It was those segments when Trump would deliver his advice on business and on life, because I imagine the advice Trump would give to young entrepreneurs is very similar to the advice Ahmedinejad would give to young terrorists, if Ahmadinejad played golf.

4. Listening to...

"The Envoy," by Warren Zevon. Because I am feeling especially cynical today.*

5. Reading...

"An Accidental Hero," by John Ed Bradley, SI.** 

"True Colors," by Malcolm Gladwell.

*See Number 3.
**I would argue that Bradley is one of the most underrated writers in that magazine's history. I have yet to read any of his novels, but his memoir about playing college football at LSU is outstanding.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On The Week's Top Five

1. Giant Heads and Talking Basketballs

Does the person who concocted the NBA's advertising campaigns have some sort of fetish with gigantism? I don't know when or how oversized craniums became the rage among America's youth--appearing on posters and in the stands at college basketball games and now in these bobblehead advertisements and talking basketball soliloquies narrated by Moe Szyslak that resemble a Timothy Leary fever dream--but it makes me think the American advertising industry is in desperate need of some new ideas, preferably packaged inside a case of Benadryl.

2. Playoffs

I confess: I did not watch enough of the NBA regular season to determine with any accuracy which teams were the favorites coming into these playoffs, but here's what I've realized: It doesn't matter. All that watching the regular season would have done is confuse me, as (with the possible exception of the final 8-10 games) it seems to mean less than it ever has before. The talent among the top 16 teams is dispersed enough that an eight-seed seems fully capable of defeating a one seed, which is a great thing for the NBA, but further proof that college basketball is far better, since in college basketball, this happens in a single-elimination format every single year.

3. Predictions

That said, I will take O.J. Mayo's beard, followed by Pau Gasol's blithe nonchalance, followed by:

3.) Kevin Garnett's Nelson Muntz-like facial contortions.
4.) Derrick Rose's soon-to-be-depleted modesty.
5.) Knicks fans' delusional sense of self-importance.

4. Baseball's Problem...

centers entirely around the fact that Kyle Farnsworth is a competent closer.*

5. Goodreads

SI's Thomas Lake on the shooting death of Denver Bronco Darrent Williams.

The St. Pete Times' Ben Montgomery on the baffling disappearance of a local diver.

*And I say this as someone who drafted Farnsworth in a fantasy league, fully expecting to release him before tax day arrived.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On The Week's Top Five

1. Trump

I do not profess to understand this phenomenon, or what it might mean for Republican politics. I do know that if Donald Trump runs for president, it will be incredibly entertaining, in the way Hank's Look-Around Cafe was entertaining. Here is what I know: Among other things, Donald Trump's rampant egotism once murdered a second-tier professional football league. If the Houston Gamblers still existed, perhaps I would see a reason to take him seriously.

2. Manny

Back when I was a cub reporter in Akron, I wrote a long profile of Manny Ramirez, in which I discovered that when the O.J. Bronco chase took place, Manny thought people were talking about his teammate Chad Ogea. Manny misplaced uncashed paychecks in his locker; he left stacks of hundreds in the glove compartment of his car. I realize nothing is certain, but I don't think Manny took steroids back then because Manny did not need steroids back then, and Manny only took what he needed. I think, as he got older, as he came to realize that he could not live in a state suspended adolescence, he probably panicked and turned to artificial methods. But I think it's ridiculous to disquality him for the Hall of Fame because of this. If nothing else, Manny wasn't savvy enough to do these things without getting caught, and since we seem to condemn the guile behind steroid use more than the actual steroid use, that should count for something.  

3. The F Word

I have meticulously detailed the ignominious history of Penn State basketball on this blog. I admit that there is little to be proud of, save a flukish NCAA tournament victory approximately once every two presidential cycles. But there is a prominent exception to that rule. His name is John Amaechi. He played center back when I covered the team in the early 1990s, and he remains one of the most perceptive and likeable athletes I've ever interviewed. He also happens to A.) Have played several largely unremarkable years in the NBA,  and B.) Be gay, which is how he's become one of the most prominent--one of the only, for that matter--voices speaking up for the gay athlete in the big three American sports. Amaechi wrote an excellent and eminently reasonable piece for The New York Times about Kobe Bryant's use of a gay slur here. Though I fear that what Kobe's outburst signals most of all is that while there is certainly more societal condemnation of homophobia than ever before, we are nowhere near the point where an NBA, NFL, or MLB player will feel comfortable enough to out himself while still active in the league.

4. Frontline

Any neanderthal who doesn't believe PBS contributes to the public good probably wouldn't appreciate this show in the first place, but I happen to believe it produces some of the best journalism anywhere, as it did with this week's program about the perils of high-school football. It's a show that manages to frame issues in a unique and accessible way. And its narrator has one of the five greatest voices in television.

5. David Grann

Seriously. This story is amazing

Monday, April 11, 2011

On The Masters

I never really felt comfortable at the Masters. I covered it several times back in the late 1990s, back when mid-sized newspapers still had the budget and the inclination to send their writers to major sporting events, and it always felt like I was wandering into a '50s theme park, a conflation of blooming flowers and aging white men and especially low-priced pimento cheese sandwiches. There is a high wall that separates Augusta National from Augusta itself, and on the other side of Washington Road there are chain restaurants and car dealerships and waitresses like the one I spoke to at the Waffle House one year, who had never been beyond the wall and imagined Augusta National as a naturalistic utopia just beyond her reach.

Now I understand that Augusta National is a private club, and so, at some level, if they prefer to only permit members with cleft chins, they are protected by the law.* But there has to be a balance here, because Augusta hosts one of the three most prestigious golf tournaments in the world, because they are essentially one of the faces of professional golf. And they seem to think that it is enough if they present a beautiful visage for television, if they charge modest prices for tickets and for parking and for souvenirs and for pimento-cheese sandwiches. It's as if, because they roll back their profit margin to the 1950s, their anachronistic exclusivity should be faulted--as if two-dollar sandwiches excuse an utter lack of female members, which leads to incidents like the one that occurred yesterday, when Bergen Record reporter Tara Sullivan, attempting to do an interview, was denied entrance to the clubhouse.***

And maybe Augusta National is telling the truth when they say that Sullivan's barring was a mistake. Maybe it was an honest misunderstanding, but these misunderstandings don't take place in more enlightened atmospheres****. These misunderstandings occur because Augusta National still clings to an outdated mentality that is no longer socially acceptable outside the gates.

Here's an uncomfortable thought: It's been almost 15 years since Tiger Woods won his first Masters, and there were no African-American golfers other than Woods near the top of the leaderboard yesterday. It's been eight years since Martha Burk's protest, and Augusta National (as far as we know) still doesn't have any female members. All those years ago, when I covered the Masters, we presumed that Tiger would influence an entire generation of minority (and even female) youth, that Tiger's mere presence would change golf itself. But I have to imagine it is still daunting for certain young golfers to make their way in a world that is largely upper-class and overwhelmingly white, in a game where the keepers of its most prestigious tract of land refuse to acknowledge that the world has changed.

*Honestly, I have no idea if that's true. I did not attend law school, and I do not have a cleft chin.**
**Not that there's anything wrong with that.
***And if you think women should not be permitted equal access to open locker rooms, please note that it is the law. You either open your locker room for everyone or for no one, and anything else is blatant discrimination.
****And that is the first and last time I will refer to a baseball clubhouse as "enlightened."

Monday, April 4, 2011

On The Week's Top Five

1. A New Format

There are some things happening in my professional life (announcement coming soon) that may alter the already limited amount of time I have to dedicate to this blog. Therefore, I am at least temporarily resorting to the tactic that every blog resorts to when it realizes that writing coherent and complete thoughts is a far more difficult proposition than they realized: I will resort to making lists.

2. Very Tough Love

This might be one of the best episodes of This American Life in the history of the show. And in a weird way, it reminded me of college athletics.

3. Amateurism: 

How did a story about a draconian drug court judge in Georgia remind me of the hypocrisies of college sports, so documented by Frontline and Real Sports in recent days? Well, in the midst of his reporting, there is a moment when Ira Glass is discussing whether the stringent policies such as those favored by this particular judge actually work, and he refers to studies that found that low-level offenders tend to respond to such punishments by rebelling against the system. Which, it would seem, is the inherent problem with the NCAA--the perception is that the institution and its member schools are making more money than they ever have while simultaneously locking down student-athletes under a system of labyrinthine and indecipherable rules developed to stem decades of misconduct. And so the natural instinct, for both athletes and institutions, is to rebel, to attempt to subvert the system rather than allow it any credence at all. The best thing the NCAA could do is give a little--find a way to offer athletes a small stipend (as Joe Paterno has been advocating since the 1970s), or to offer them some sort of deferred scholarship money upon their departure from school.

Of course, I don't expect them to do it unless they are forced to, but given the pending lawsuits and the rising ire of fans and media and the players themselves, perhaps we have finally reached the moment when they have no other choice but to acknowledge that pure amateurism is an unachievable ideal. 

4. Joel Kinnaman

I had no idea who this guy was until last night, when I watched the premiere of AMC's The Killing. Kinnman is from Stockholm--at first he reminded me of an incredibly suave and charismatic version of Gareth from BBC's The Office. Then he showed up in two scenes--one in which he interacted with the main character's teenaged son, and another in which he flirted with a pair of teenaged girls in order to forward his investigation--and I thought, There is no way this dude does not become a major film star. Until he stars in a failed comic-book adaptation and winds up acting in B movies alongside Billy Zane, I will adhere to this prediction. In the meantime, I highly recommend The Killing, though given my track record for recommending television shows in the past year (Rubicon, Terriers, Lights Out), I suspect it will last only one season.

5. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

You know those books you have on your shelf for years that everyone says you must read, and you keep thinking, I'll get to it eventually, and you watch a documentary based on this book, and you say, I'll get to it eventually, and you read an excellent book clearly inspired by this one, and then finally you start reading it, and you say to yourself, Why did it take me so long to read this? This is that book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On "Disrespect": A Brief Observation

We all know by now that the sports world is littered with perceived disrespect, but this weekend felt like mini-zenith in the Era of Self-Imposed Haters. Sixty-eight teams entered the NCAA tournament, and I have little doubt that sixty-eight coaches spent the weekend assuring their assembled squads that, in fact, no one believed they would get beyond this round, that everyone doubted their fitness for either A.) Being included in the tournament field, or B.) Being seeded wherever they happened to be seeded. The NCAA tournament is built that way; its format demands that coaches utilize every form of motivation imaginable in order to keep their teams from losing focus. Therefore, we hear Connecticut players, after winning five games in five days in what everyone agreed was the toughest conference tournament in American history, denouncing naysayers who almost certainly don't exist; and we hear Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart admitting to splicing a highlight reel of everyone who even marginally disrespected his team on national television.

Now, I have reason to believe that Shaka Smart is an intelligent man. He attended Kenyon College, a top-tier liberal arts school;* he is the head coach of a Division I basketball program at age 33. I doubt he even believes that the venom against a relatively unknown program is as stark and unforgiving as he makes it out to be; what Shaka Smart knows is that it works. Who among us has not been motivated by a snub? Who among has not defied the directives of Obi-Wan Kenobi and utilized anger in order to advance our standing? Such is sports in the 21st century; in an era of unbridled communication, this may be the most effective way to cut through the noise, by encouraging young men to embrace the dark side. Long live the Empire.

*Where he dated my fiancee's high-school friend, which is irrelevant, but kind of cool.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On The Long and Illustrious History of Penn State Basketball, Part III

Forgive me if this post is disjointed, but I'm a little frazzled. I've written before about my irrational loyalty to the perpetually lost cause known as Penn State basketball,* but every so often they reward my patience. Once every decade, a team emerges from out of nowhere, like this one did, and just when you think they're going to fall away into the historical oblivion of the NIT they pull some kind of irrational stunt. Granted, it was perhaps the ugliest miracle you'll ever see, four straight days of teeth-pulling, gear-grinding Big Ten tournament basketball, four days of the best player in Penn State history struggling for every single shot he took, four days of the basketball establishment continually casting doubts on a team that probably deserved quite a bit of that doubt after losing to Maine in December.**

But every so often, whether by pure chance or pure will or pure want, this happens. And it is a great feeling, a joy that is rare and unique and exhilarating and exhausting. I don't permit myself many pure sporting pleasures, due partly to my job and due partly to a veil of skepticism that keeps thickening with age, but Penn State basketball is one of the last unfettered allegiances of my existence. Because they are always underdogs, a school without a true recruiting base, a school so devoid of tradition that you get the feeling they wouldn't even know how to cheat effectively even if they wanted to, a school with five very good starting players and absolutely no bench at all***, a school that doesn't even have a true practice facility, a school with so much working against that it's a miracle they ever find a way to compete in the Big Ten.

Sometimes makes me angry that it has to be that way, but it's the truth, and I don't know if they'll ever find their way to a higher plane. As I've said before, I kind of hope they don't. There was something hyperkinetic about watching those wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State, as sluggish as they appeared to an impartial observer. Because Penn State has no real bench, because their margin of error is so slim, because Talor Battle--and I was convinced Battle was going to become the greatest college basketball player to go four years without ever appearing in an NCAA tournament--plays forty minutes game after game, because every defensive stop is key, because a forward named Jeff Brooks has suddenly found himself, because you feel the urgency with every possession, watching this team somehow win games has been one of the great joys in my increasingly segmented life as a sports fan.

And so now I shouldn't really care what happens. But I will. I will sweat every posession against Temple, and I will spout irrational thoughts, and whenever it is over, against Temple or San Diego State or Duke or whoever, I will feel a distinct sense of sadness. Because it is not often that something so raggedly beautiful unfolds before your eyes.

*And if you arrived here because of either of those posts, you should probably read this, by the always insightful Dave Jones.
**I've never paid much attention to announcer bias. When I was kid, my parents would throw parties to watch Penn State games, and we would listen to Frank Broyles, who was an unapologetic SEC guy through-and-through, and the word was that Frank Broyles hated Penn State. I have no idea if this was true, and even if it was true...who cares? But it was rather strange to watch two days of Big Ten tournament coverage on CBS, because it was clear no one on that broadcast team expected Penn State to be playing in any of those games, and no one on that broadcast team was willing to even accept the fact that Penn State had a better case for an NCAA tournament bid than Michigan State. Clark Kellogg maintained this stance even after Penn State defeated Michigan State. And I generally like Clark Kellogg quite a bit. But his refusal to acknowledge statistics was mind-boggling.
***There is one player who comes off the bench for Penn State--and I shall not name names--who at times appears so utterly befuddled and physically overmatched that his play reminds me of the old days, when Penn State would recruit big kids from rural Pennsylvania who would have otherwise wound up at Lock Haven State just to fill their scholarship quota. At one point during the Big Ten tournament, this kid was on the floor with a walk-on whose primary job is to fill space. And somehow, through sheer force of effort, Penn State won anyway.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On R.E.M.: A Personal History

I. State College, Pennsylvania, Spring '91: Document

His name is not relevant. He was never really a friend. For three months, he was a pledge brother at my fraternity, which meant we scrubbed floors and cleaned toilets and went on beer runs until one day, a few weeks from our initiation, he abruptly disappeared and never returned. It did not matter why; if I am being honest, I was not particularly fond of him. He came from money, and he was comically snobbish, and he was one of the first overt racists I had come across in my sheltered existence. Here is what matters: He drove a Honda, and in this Honda were several compact discs in heavy rotation. One of those CDs was Doolittle by the Pixies. Another was Document, by a band called R.E.M.

We did not have a true alternative radio station in State College. I'm not sure how this is possible, how a college town failed to have an alternative radio station in the early 1990s, but this is State College, after all, and State College is sweatpants and football and frat parties and dingy bars populated by classic rock cover bands. And so I grew up listening a hodgepodge of mainstream music, listening to that which my brother bequeathed to me and that which I found on my own or through my metalhead high-school friends. I listened to Billy Joel's Stormfront followed by Van Halen II followed by Yes's 90125. "Alternative" music seemed the dominion of a strange and unfamiliar cult, a far more cultivated class of people than that which I considered myself. It wasn't that I'd never heard of R.E.M.--I have a distinct memory of the morning of my driver's test, waking to the local classic rock station playing "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)"--but back then, they resided in some alternate, largely radio-free dimension into which I was not permitted. Perhaps that was the reason I bothered to join a fraternity in the first place: I just wanted to know what was on the other side.

Here is what I remember most about the rides in that unnamed non-friend's Honda: Listening to song called "Exhuming McCarthy." I was eighteen years old, and I knew little to nothing of McCarthyism, and yet the opening of that song--the sounds of a manual typewriter clacking until the carriage return bell rang and a bouncy guitar riff rattled the windows--was like nothing I had ever heard. I listen to it now, and the lyrics seem kind of preachy and didactic, and yet that typewriter still transports me to the backseat of Civic, to that moment when I was just beginning to learn how much I didn't know.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Jim McMahon and "Honor Codes"

So the Brigham Young basketball team has dimissed one of its top players for a violation of the school's "honor code." This is nothing new--either the honor code or the dismissal of an athlete for violating it, and no one is really arguing that athletes who attend BYU should be required to adhere to said code, ridiculous as it may seem to those of us who reside in someplace other than Victorian England. If these are the dictates of their religion--and if BYU subsists as a private school--then that's their business.

But it should be noted that BYU has not always abided by its own rules. It should be noted that in the early 1980s, when Jim McMahon attended said university, both he and his father made it abundantly clear that they had no real interest in the tenets of Mormonism, and that McMahon was matriculating at BYU because Lavell Edwards had constructed a prolific passing offense.* Specifically, McMahon claims that he spent nearly every weekend partying up the road at a different college campus, that he surreptitiously managed to chew tobacco and purchase alcoholic beverages, that, at one point, he had a campus police officer stationed outside his apartment to ensure that he did not violate the honor code.* That McMahon and his university so clearly used each other to advance their profiles (and, if I may, you can read much, much more about this relationship in a certain book that is now available for a discounted rate at could be blamed on either party, but it proves that, while BYU may have its own dictates, it is not above engaging in the same hypocrisy that every major college athletic program in America has, at one time or another. That it happened to occur with one of the four or five greatest players in school history--a player who may have singlehandedly raised the profile of his school more than any other, while simultaneously laying the moral groundwork for his own outrageousness--is something that many at BYU are even now reluctant to acknowledge. 

*"My son's going to school to play football," Jim McMahon Sr. reportedly told one of the school's lead recruiters. "I don't want him to take all those religion classes."
**My favorite McMahon quote was relayed by his high-school teacher, who, upon informing McMahon that he would have to take a class on the book of Mormon while at BYU, told her, "That's all right. I like fiction."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Cinema, Sports and Predictability

I think we can all agree that this year's Oscar ceremony was particularly terrible. What we might not agree on is the reason why it was terrible. You may single out James Franco's blank pseudo-stoner visage, or Anne Hathaway's array of cheerleading yodels, or that horribly uncomfortable moment when Spartacus nearly toppled off the stage, or when one of the characters from Strange Brew was hired to mimic the voice of Bob Hope. You may have found the transitions from silent film to the E.T. soundtrack somewhat jarring, and you may have found the daisy chain of celebrity introductions particularly bizarre, and you may have been distracted by the dearth of Charlie Sheen jokes. But we all know the real reason this year's Oscars were so eminently forgettable is because they were so utterly predictable.*

This is the problem with an event like the Oscars: Given the flood of awards shows that come before (and the amount of coverage given to each), the winners seem patently obvious by the time the ceremony arrives. Imagine if there were five National League pitchers with 20 victories apiece, and sportswriters voted for the Cy Young Award every week in September before the final vote at the end of the season; that's essentially what the Oscars have become. They're predictable, and there's nothing worse, in cinema or in sports, than predictability.

This, above all else, is what's riding on the NFL and NBA labor negotiations, from a fan's perspective. Baseball, whether true or not, suffers from a perceived lack of parity--even if the Yankees or Red Sox don't play in the World Series, there is a perception that they are going to, and that spending six months following a small-market team may result in the occasional anomalous playoff run, it is generally a futile pursuit. And so baseball has suffered, and the NFL--despite a growing uncomfortability with the repercussions of violence--remains America's most popular sport, because a socialist collective can win a championship...and the NBA is in a state of flux, especially now, as power increasingly becomes concentrated in a handful of major markets.

Of course, I'm not saying sports will ever be as predictable as the movies. This is why, if I had to choose to eliminate one of the two from my life, I would choose film (though I'd prefer if it didn't come to that). Entertainment value is in the eye of the beholder, but I'd still prefer a world with surprises.

*For what it's worth: I would have voted for Fincher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jennifer Lawrence and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Friday, February 25, 2011

On The Best Picture

I haven't seen The King's Speech. I'm sure it's a perfectly fine film, with a perfectly fine cast and a perfectly fine message about life. I'm sure I will see it and think, "This is a perfectly fine moviegoing experience," and then I will go home and forget all about it.

I have seen The Social Network. I have mixed feelings about Aaron Sorkin, but I thought his script was hard-edged and unsentimental and it spoke to an American moment, which is why I hope everyone who spends their time prognosticating about awards shows is right and it doesn't win the Oscar.

There are two reasons for this: The first is that it's just far more interesting when a film like The Social Network stands outside the mainstream...even if, in this case, "standing outside the mainstream" means it is actually the second most-honored film of the year. The second is that the movies that tend to get snubbed for Oscars are, approximately 75 percent of the time, more likely to be culturally relevant in the long-term than the films that win. This, I suppose, is because Oscar voters are comprised of such a large cross-section of Hollywood that their consensus is almost always going to be watered down by sentiment and facile thinking. Which is why, dating back to the rise of the modern studio era in Hollywood, the most relevant pictures are usually the ones that don't win.

1977--Winner: Annie Hall.
Most Relevant Best Picture Nominee Today: Annie Hall is probably one of my six favorite films of all-time, but Star Wars is the most relevant film of the past thirty-five years.

1978--Winner: The Deer Hunter.
MRBPNT: The Deer Hunter (if only for the Russian roulette).

1979--Winner: Kramer vs. Kramer.
MRBPNT: I watched K vs. K a few years ago; if not for the lead performances, it's basically something you'd see on Lifetime Women. Whereas Apocalypse Now is probably not.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. I understand the Nets are taking a risk by trading for Deron Williams without (as far as we know) any real knowledge of whether or not they can re-sign him, but two things seem relatively obvious: A.) If I had to choose between a pure scorer like Carmelo Anthony and a dynamic point guard like Deron Williams, I will choose the point guard every time, and B.) If anything, people are probably underestimating the lure of both Brooklyn and a team owned (at least in part) by Jay-Z. I've covered high-school basketball in Brooklyn, and even that realm is ridiculously intense. If this team is any good at all, it could be far bigger than most people imagine it to be.*

2. I have no idea if Steve Lavin is a good coach, but the fact that St. John's is a completely different team this year as compared to years past seems like proof that in college basketball, coaching can change things in radical ways. In fact, it almost seems unfair that St. John's has one of the greatest coaches in Division I history as an assistant. It will be difficult not to choose St. John's as an early-round sleeper in my yearly experiment in self-immolation, just as it will be difficult to pick against Wisconsin, which seems to do more with a gang of pale slow Aryan-looking youngsters than anyone since Aaron Sorkin.

3. This is the greatest piece of self-satire Deadspin has ever published. In fact, they should have splashed across their new "front page" and Tweeted about it endlessly, and Craggs should have written a brilliantly crafted 1,200-word screed about why Oddibe McDowell's water bill is proof that the conventional wisdom about the water bills of ex-Texas Rangers is completely misguided.

*This piece is a fun read today. Zoinks!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Carmelo: A Rough Notebook of Ideas

I. I cannot recall ever knowing more details about a trade in which I had no real rooting interest--and not even a great deal of interest, period--than this Carmelo Anthony deal. There are several reasons for this. First, the team acquiring Anthony, the New York Knicks, has degenerated into one of the more dysfunctional franchises in professional sports, and happens to be based in the largest media market in America. Second, Anthony himself (and his representatives) accomplished the bizarre feat of telegraphing precisely where he wanted to wind up long before he got there, which has happened in the past but never quite like this. These factors led to a third reason, which is that the media, already kineticized by The Decision and the proliferation of Twitter and recognizing the rampant dysfunction on both sides, felt obligated to report every single rumor and supposition in real time, for fear that, given the parties involved--and the continued meddling of a Drago-esque Russian billionaire only contributed to further weirdness--anything could potentially be true.

This is why it seems like the Carmelo thing has been going on since the Pleistocene era; because since it began, it's never really stopped. And since I am only a casual NBA fan (at least until the playoffs commence), I will leave it to others to debate the merits of the trade for each respective franchise. I think the bigger question here is what it says about the future of the NBA.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Inconsequential Things (and One Consequential Thing) That Matter To Me

1. I wrote a couple of short pieces for GQ's new NBA package, one of which--on the NBA's new villains--can be found here. But you should check out the whole thing, if only because that Oklahoma City Thunder illustration is hyperawesome. 

2. I was going to write something about this mind-boggling piece* on the Huffington Post, but then Stephen Colbert said everything that needed to be said right here. Seriously, this is the most innovative website in the modern** history of the Internet.

3. Years ago, when I was a cub sportswriter in Akron, I took a phone call from a man named Pat Williams, who was looking for someone to help him write a book about his mentor, a baseball owner named Bill Veeck. I did not know much of Pat Williams' past history, beyond his remarkable role as an NBA lottery good-luck charm--I certainly did not know that he had once wrestled a bear--but I agreed to do it, and I was glad I did, if only because it acquainted me with two of the more fascinating people I'd ever come across. Pat is a force of nature, so relentlessly positive that I often had trouble believing he actually existed, and I have little doubt that if anyone can wrestle bone cancer into submission, it's him. And I don't normally do this, but if you happen to have the means and you'd like to make a donation toward a cure for what sounds like a truly nasty disease, here's a link.

*My favorite part is when he writes that the content written by HuffPo staff is the "most widely read" and is "the primary driver of everything else." Read that paragraph, then cast your inches two inches to the right and consider how many of the "top stories" on the site involve photos of a pantsless Jessica Simpson or video of an animal wreaking havoc.
 **Meaning, "the past 48 hours."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On the Grammys, Jethro Tull, and Those Freaking Canadians

" matter how dominant and predictable something might be in your world, it is still a weird, marginal thing to most everyone else."--Nitsuh Abebe, Vulture

A confession: I have trouble letting go of my cultural predilections. I will continue to watch a television show long after it has gone sour,* and I will continue to consume the discography of a decaying rock band if only to complete my collection**. That's the way I am, and I can do nothing to stop it: Once a piece of the culture belongs to me, it belongs to me, and I feel I have an obligation to follow it until the end. I've never understood how the ratings of a serialized show like Lost would ebb and flow: Either you watched it, or you didn't watch it, and there was no in-between. Consumption, in my mind, is a commitment, and I stick to my commitments, and if they fall outside my purview, then I tend to devalue them completely. For two years, I didn't watch Breaking Bad because Bryan Cranston was on Malcolm in the Middle and I never watched Malcolm in the Middle because that little kid always seemed like an obnoxious attempt to manufacture a real-life Bart Simpson. That*** was one of the more stupid decisions of my recent existence.

This, I suppose, is human nature. If it doesn't exist in my world, then it might as well not exist. If I haven't seen an award-winning movie that happens to win an award, then I have to imagine it is not as deserving as the movie I have seen.****And this explains the backlash to the Grammys, an awards show that has always done an unbelievably inept job of attempting to pander to everyone by pandering to no one. Remember when Jethro Tull defeated Metallica for best rock album? Given that my friends were hard-core metalheads, that was an event tantamount to Chernobyl. We were upset, even though it meant nothing, even though the Grammys had long ago marginalized themselves to the point that it was almost better, if you wanted credit as something more than a mainstream pop artist, to not be associated with them. In that way, I assume Metallica's loss was one of the greatest things to happen to that band.*****

Anyway, these are the two points of view that Nitsuh Abebe attempts to reconicle in his excellent piece on New York magazine's culture website, Vulture. It was a moment that pitted people like us--the self-aware Brooklyn hipsters who grew tired of the Arcade Fire hype in 2005--against the masses who tend toward pop music, who measure accomplishment in terms of mainstream fame and feel just as insulted as we do when their views are invalidated.

You might think this is a problem. You might find it bothersome that there are so many people who are angered by an unassuming Canadian rock band winning an award over a pedestrian pseudo-country band, a rapper who did his best work more than a decade ago, a woman who regularly dresses like breakfast and another woman who manages to dispense whipped topping from her cleavage. And maybe it is. Maybe these divergent paradigms explain why half the politicians in America appear to be speaking a completely different language. Maybe it explains why there is so much misunderstanding, and so much hatred. But it also proves that I live in a weird, marginal world, in a borough of a city where the percentage of people who have heard of the Arcade Fire is probably higher than anywhere else south of Windsor. And I happen to like that, just as I'm sure the people who dig Lady Antebellum's vibe happen to believe she (they? it?) got hosed on Sunday night. 

The larger problem, as Abebe notes, is not that we believe different things. It's that we have trouble imagining a world that exists beyond our cultural purview. It's a problem I'll admit I've had for years, and finding a solution doesn't mean I have to like your music, or that you have to like mine, or that you have to like my politics, or I have to like yours. It only means that we have to accept that these things exist.

*This explains why I continue to DVR Californication.
**This explains why I briefly had myself convinced that Oasis' Heathen Chemistry was actually not so bad.
***Neglecting Breaking Bad, not Malcolm. Though I've never seen Malcolm, so I have no idea. I know several intelligent people who insist The Big-Bang Theory is funny, too.
****Except in the case of Crash. And Million-Dollar Baby. I saw those movies. They just empirically sucked.
*****And perhaps even prefigured their own turn toward the mainstream.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter to Me (Thoughts While Ill Edition)

1. Every time I contract a cold or a sore throat or something resembling the flu, I'm reminded that Michael Jordan's flu game has to be the greatest single performance in the history of modern sports. I mean, Jordan was 34 years old during that game; I'm now 38, and I find it hard to imagine departing from my sofa when my temperature creeps past 99. I hate being sick. I hate being sick so much that I need all of my energies to focus on how much I hate being sick. I realize that Jordan is a pathological lunatic, but I still have no idea how Jordan was able to do that.

2. It makes me sort of sad that the guy who starred in Whit Stillman's Barcelona has been relegated to making appearances in Time-Warner cable advertisements--for that matter, it makes me sad that anyone has to make appearances in advertisements for a company that I consider tantamount to Al Qaeda--but at least it's not Chris Eigeman, who appeared in one of the great cancelled television programs of the 1990s, who essentially made Whit Stillman's career, and who starred in perhaps the funniest film of the 1990s. If there were any justice in moviemaking, Chris Eigeman would be a three-time Academy Award winner and Paul Haggis would be best known for exposing scientology.

3. I don't entirely disagree with this column.* But having spent the past couple of days consuming several hours of sports talk at a time, I do think this may be the most idiotic "controversy" of the past six months.

*Though in a way, I kind of do. I'd much prefer to watch a college football game than pretend national signing day existed. I think Pearlman missed a major point, which is that there is far too much rote arguing and pedestrian rumor-mongering about sports, and there is virtually no effort made to put these oft-inconsequential stories into some larger perspective.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On Super Bowl XLV, The Day After: XXV Random Thoughts

I. I agree with Joe--if Rodgers doesn't make that third down throw, the Steelers probably win. Then again, if Mendenhall doesn't fumble, the Steelers probably win. And if Roethlisberger doesn't throw that pick-six, the Steelers probably win.

II. And yet there was never a moment where it felt like the Steelers were going to win.

III. The most surprising thing about the final drive is not that the Steelers didn't score. It's that the drive fizzled out. Given the situation, you would have figured the Packers would give up underneath routes, that Roethlisberger would find a way to deliver first downs, that the game would be decided in Green Bay's red zone.

IV. That it wasn't was both curious and anticlimactic.

V. Because of the way it ended, I doubt I will remember much of anything about this Super Bowl in five years. Unlike the past few years, there was no single, defining play. Which means the Super Bowl is far better than it used to be. Which means we've actually grown to expect a decent Super Bowl.

VI. Wasn't there a time when ESPN would show the NFL Films highlights package from every Super Bowl, back to back?

VII. I seem to remember a brief period in my life when I could recite the winners of every single SB from memory. It's kind of sad that there are too many now, that we can't do this anymore, that there are no longer as many kids who grow up knowing who Max McGee is because John Facenda taught them.

VIII. XTina's bungling of our national hymn only makes it seem more absurd that Roseanne generated such raging controversy for mangling a tune that even professionals can't get right.

IX. It's either The Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful. Not both. Decide.

X. A record number of people watched this Super Bowl, which is kind of astounding.

XI. And yet it's more astounding to me how many people choose not to watch the Super Bowl.

XII. I mean, is the Puppy Bowl really that compelling?

XIII. Let's say 25 percent of the population professes no interest in football, or in pervasive cultural events. That still leaves an additional 30 percent of American households with televisions who were not watching the Super Bowl at any given moment.

XIX. That said, I was actually driving through the backwoods of South Carolina, on assignment, when the Giants defeated the Patriots a couple of years ago. It's weird, listening to a Super Bowl on the radio--it's almost like the game never happened.

XV. I was also in England for a Super Bowl once, which was even stranger, because A.) The game kicked off after midnight, and B.) No one in the entire country seemed to care about the single most popular television event in America.

XVI. Which I suppose is how transplanted Europeans must feel about our disdain for virtually every sport they actually seem to like.

XVII. Charles Woodson has had an undeniably great professional career, and is almost certainly a Hall of Famer. And yet he was so dynamically awesome in college--there were moments when Woodson, playing both ways, looked like he might actually alter the paradigm--that he almost seems like a disappointment to me.

XVIII. The Darth Vader kid was the only ad that didn't seem heavily burdened with either "epic" imagery, talking animals, or borderline misogyny.

XIX. When exactly did Eminem become a spokesman for mainstream America?

XX. As someone at my apartment happened to mention, how far down the celebrity endorsement list did Groupon have to go before they landed on Timothy Hutton?

XXI. Was Tim Matheson occupied?

XXII. Chimpanzees are so 2007.

XXIII. So is beer.

XXIV. So are automobiles.

XXV. So is America. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

On The Super Bowl and the Return of the Great American Bacchanalia

Part II of my Super Bowl week "series." You can find several pieces I've written about football here.

Of the hundreds of empirical measurements used to determine the health of the national economy, none speak in such a quintessentially American way as a stripper shortage. That's what Dallas is experiencing this week, according to the exotica experts at TMZ, who breathlessly reported that the city is in search of ten thousand nublile females—STAT!—to satisfy the whims of that slim faction of citizens who can actually afford to attend a Super Bowl.

But it's not just perfumed sex kittens who are at a premium amid the expanse of glass and silicone known as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Parking spaces are reportedly going for up to $1,000, the average online ticket price is north of $4,000 (up considerably from last year), and sold-out passes for something called the Party Plaza, which affords one the opportunity to stand in the general vicinity of Cowboys Stadium and watch the game on a supersized television, are being offered at as much as four times their $200 face value.

Unless you happen to own a parking garage in which exotic dancers scalp second-hand tickets, this may all seem inherently disquieting. In fact, to everyone outside of Jerry Jones and Grover Norquist, I have to imagine that the sheer capitalistic scope of the Super Bowl must be a little disturbing, especially when the country is slowly emerging from a crippling recession. That it is taking place in a city that lives up to every sordid cliche about itself, and in a stadium built by a narcissistic billionaire who installed an HD Jumbotron the size of Skylab, only heightens the instinct for revulsion. But maybe this is all a good sign.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Quickish edition)

1. Books

I'll be reading (briefly) with an all-star cast of sportswriting characters this evening in Manhattan, at Gelf's fifth annual Varsity Letters event. You can read the interview with me--and with all the others--here. And I highly recommend Dan Shanoff's new site, Quickish--it's like a hybrid of a sports blog and a well-curated Twitter feed, without all the peripheral nonsense. 

2. Bo

Somehow, Bo Jackson is only receiving one percent of the vote in this poll of GQ's Coolest Athletes. Also, a surfer is in first place. Please help remedy this injustice immediately.
3. Punks

Following up on yesterday's McMahon story, the folks at Bodog came up with this graphic. Though given McMahon's injury (and social) history, there are several other body parts they could have pinpointed as well, for various reasons.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On The One Super Bowl Week That Wasn't a Bore

I wrote this piece for

In commemoration of the most ostentatious and overhyped seven days in American sports, let us hearken back precisely twenty-five years, to a time that was both more and less innocent, to a moment when, thanks to one man, Super Bowl week overcame its stultifying reputation and became, ever so briefly, a tabloid bonanza. Let us recall the apostate known as the Punky QB, who strode into the holy land of New Orleans and, over the course of a few short days, rendered the Super Bowl his own personal bacchanal, a montage of drinking and fighting and mooning replete with plot twists involving a rogue acupuncturist, Bob Hope, public urination, and a controversial radio interview that never actually took place. It was so tacky and improbable that even the producers of Entourage would question the plausibility of it all.

Of course, the Super Bowl, at least since Joe Willie Namath's overhyped guarantee of victory, has always been more "event" than event. Few men could rise above it. For years—with the exception of a cocaine-addled Dallas Cowboys linebacker named Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson questioning the intelligence of the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw*—the week leading up the Super Bowl, post Namath, had been positively boring. And then came the Bears, who were already national icons, who had already recorded a pulsating rap song proclaiming their intention to win the Super Bowl, whose gap-toothed defensive lineman was guzzling Big Macs and scoring touchdowns and reveling in his girth, whose blustery coach had been arrested for drunk driving after getting toasted on the team plane, and whose quarterback had gone on Letterman and declared he had no intention to pay a fine levied by the commissioner for wearing a headband bearing the logo of a German shoe company.
James Robert McMahon Jr. was the quarterback's name, and despite the significant contributions of sidemen like Ditka and William "Refrigerator" Perry, Jim McMahon was the frontman for the Bears' short-lived pop-cultural explosion.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

On The Space Shuttle, 25 Years Later

One of the challenges of writing a book about sports that's actually a book about American culture is figuring out a way to transition from one element to the other. I'm not sure how successful I was at it, but it was surprising to me how seamlessly the pieces often seemed to fit together. For instance, most people probably don't remember that the 1985 Bears never made it to the White House to celebrate with President Reagan because a couple of days after they won the Super Bowl, the Space Shuttle Challenger imploded in mid-air. I have vivid memories of both, and I didn't think I could write a book about the era without writing at least a little bit about the Challenger disaster, an indelible event that occurred twenty-five years ago today. It was actually one of the hardest sections of the book to write, as I wanted to capture the moment without sacrificing the tone of the book--looking back on it, I have no idea if it actually worked. So here is the end of Chapter 5 of Bigger Than the Game...and the beginning of Chapter 6. 

...people stood and gawked at the big screen in Marshall Field’s, this time at the images of a space shuttle carrying seven astronauts—among them a New England schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe—launching into the sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida, and then fracturing into pieces. The city froze; the nation froze. At a restaurant in downtown Chicago, a law-school student stared lockjawed at a television set and uttered a single baleful sentence.

“I thought the entire system was infallible,” he said.


 At a news conference, Mr. Reagan . . . also blamed the January 28 loss of the Challenger and the seven astronauts aboard on “a carelessness that grew out of success.
The New York Times, June 12, 1986

On the morning of January 28, 1986, President Reagan took a meeting with the Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill, during which he relied entirely upon partisan talking points gleaned from four-by-six cue cards prepared by his staff. It was a tactic that Reagan had used before, and even his Republican allies found it distasteful; this was Reagan at his worst, robotic and detached. He lamented the work ethic of “the fellow on welfare,” telling O’Neill, “These people don’t want to work.” O’Neill and Reagan were generally civil, even friendly, but this time, the Speaker came back at him hard, his patience worn thin. “I’m sick and tired of your attitude, Mr. President,” he said. “I thought you would have grown in five years.”