Category: Sports

November 17th, 2009

It might be a little hypocritical to slag on someone for being self-referential. As a blogger who writes primarily about his life and thoughts, most of my Internet persona is defined by self-reference.

Then again, I don’t purport to any other notion. You don’t come to Black Marks on Wood Pulp and expect non-personal writing.

The Book of BasketballHowever, when you read a book called The Book of Basketball, you expect it to be, for the most part, about basketball.

Let’s get this out of the way. I loved this book. As a basketball fan with a fleeting knowledge of history pre-1980s, it was a wonderful way to fill in the blanks. Was Wilt better than Russell? Was David Thompson as good as people say? Should I hate Karl Malone more than I already do? (The answers, respectively: no, yes, probably.)

I grew up watching Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller, so it’s good to have a reference point from which to compare. And if you’re looking for a more objective tome, there are probably better choices. However, if you’re looking for a down-to-earth synopsis of the NBA’s past 60 years, you can’t do much better.

The concept: Bill Simmons, who is sort of a pioneer when it comes to crafting Internet sports columns (in that he helped usher in the more relaxed, more opinionated and, ultimately, more enjoyable sports writing that we all take for granted today) uses his extreme fanhood to explain his take on the NBA, past and present.

A 96-player, pyramid based Hall of Fame that separates different classes of player based on accomplishments? Done. A listing of the top 10 teams of all time? Done. An incredibly insightful look at why Oscar Robertson’s numbers might be skewed, or a entire section devoted to what could have happened had certain moves not been made? Done. It’s like sitting down with a good friend – who also happens to be a huge NBA fan – and hashing out every great basketball argument ever made.

Yeah. It’s awesome. So let’s start picking it apart.

Seriously, Bill – your name is on the book – there’s no reason to keep reminding us that this is your opinion we’re taking on. I don’t care about who you know. I don’t need every argument to be unceremoniously finished with a reference to Teen Wolf, or a backhanded Shawshank Redemption quote.

He tackles race in an awkward way – he’s understanding, though at the same time strangely defensive and apologetic. He drops names whenever he can. He peppers his footnotes with the same kind of lame humor you’d expect to see in lesser blog comments on Deadspin. He makes no mistake that this is his book, and that we should expect more and more lame pop culture references and stories about his buddy House.

That being said, the self-referential nature only begins to grate around page 500. Did I mention the book is nearly 700 pages long? Surprisingly, it’s a fast read, though I can’t help but think it would be about 200 pages shorter if he took himself out of the story (an unfunny point he makes several times as you get closer to the end.)

See, there’s my problem. It’s easier to complain than it is to praise. Though the last three paragraphs sound like criticism, this shouldn’t frame my opinion of the book. They are minor blips on an ambitious project, one that doesn’t just present basketball history, but puts in context and in a way you can easily understand. This isn’t a book for stat hounds or nitpickers – this is a book for true fans, for those who long to have hour-long discussions about who was better: Bird of Magic.

(My answer: Bird. Bill’s surprising answer: Magic. Even as a Boston homer, Bill still couldn’t bring himself to be biased.)

October 8th, 2009

From CelticsBlog recap of Celtics’ first preseason game comes this glimmer of hope:

“KG looked like KG. In eight 1st quarter minutes he drained two 18 footers, played great defense including two steals, and had three rebounds. He would have had an ally-oop from Rondo but was fouled. His feet and hands are very active. No complaints or concerns.”

“Garnett looked strong again in the 2nd half. He was never limping or showed any signs of fatigue. He had a great pass to Ray Allen cutting to the hoop as well.”

*WHEW*

Now, all we need to worry about is how he’ll hold up through the season.

*CROSSES FINGERS*

September 21st, 2009

For the most part, we’re blissfully unaware of the distance between our perceived abilities and our actual skills.

Example: I have spent the last four months practicing post moves, shooting jumpers, flipping in lay-ups and juke-ing invisible defenders in an effort to get better at basketball. At times, I’d be completely on fire, hitting nearly everything and – in the process – inflating my ego. From an athletic standpoint, I figured I was okay – after all, I worked with the elliptical at the fitness center from time to time.

That in mind, I organized a 1-on-1 tournament. I was in no way expecting to win. I knew my limits. I would place third, maybe. Fourth if it was a bad day. But I’d be in the running.

After all, it’s my court. Those were my jumpers. That was my sweet spot.

Only three people played. We played each other to 11.

Combined, I lost 22-1.

My drive turned into a wheezing heap of clumsiness, my jumper into a floppy armed heave. I jammed my finger on a rebound early on and it now swells blue and purple as if reminding me that I couldn’t even get THAT fundamental right. I could feel my opponents easing off. I could feel their pity. And I still couldn’t manage to keep up.

Turns out that I’m not quite where I thought I was. Turns out, also, that the inflated sense of ability was utterly crushed by the agonizing reality of the situation: I was not very good at basketball, and I probably never have been. Despite my consistency when it comes to easy 12-foot unguarded jumpers, I couldn’t quite make the cut when it came to actual 1-on-1 play.

The funny thing: it wasn’t demoralizing. It was refreshing, actually. I no longer need to worry about whether or not I’m good.

I’m not. And that’s a weight off of my shoulders.

I was right about one thing, though.

I DID get third place.

September 11th, 2009

By now, if you’re a basketball fan – or a sports fan in general – you’ve already read a dozen tributes to Michael Jordan. And if you’re not a basketball fan, you’ve still been unable to escape retrospectives and video packages, though you may not know why.

Today is the day Michael Jordan enters the Basketball Hall of Fame. He enters for an NBA career that still elicits memories, despite nearly a decade since his peak years. He enters as the best player in basketball history, and possibly the most dominant player professional sports have ever seen.

For each of us, the legend means something different. Some are native Chicagoans who rooted for Jordan every game of his career. Others are bandwagon jumpers who discovered the game through his wide-reaching footprint. More often than not, there’s a jealousy of his legacy, a begrudging respect for the man that served as an insurmountable foil. For fans of Indiana, Utah, Phoenix, New York, Portland, Seattle – really, the entire league – Jordan was a necessary evil.

For me, the legend began on February 11, 1990.

The NBA was in the midst of a resurgence it would ride through the next ten years. Gone were the days of no-named lineups and ABA mergers and fights and drugs. Instead, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had built trust in the NBA, and the league was quickly filled with some of the best players ever to play the game.

Rivalries were reborn as the Celtics and Lakers battled year after year for the title. And as age caught up with Bird and Magic, a new rivalry sprouted up – the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, high-flying dominance versus gritty, tough team play.

This was the NBA I was brought into. Basketball was no stranger to my life, but I hadn’t yet caught on to the significance of the game. My father, a lifelong Celtics fan, nurtured my desire to play on our school’s Gra-Y team. And it was this nurturing that led me to the home of my father’s co-worker on an early afternoon in February, to watch the 1989-1990 NBA All Star Game.

Looking back, it’s weird that anyone would stop everything to watch what has become a no-defense exhibition game. But in the 80s and early 90s, the All Star Game wasn’t just an excuse to party – it was a matter of pride for every NBA player involved. This was the season after the Pistons had won their first title, a feat they’d conquer again the subsequent summer. This was the season when Jordan’s skills as a team leader were questioned the Bulls failed – once again – to make it past their hated rivals.

The Eastern Conference team featured eight players from three distinct dynasties. Boston’s aging stars – Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale – played alongside Chicago’s future – Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Both teams served as teammates for the champion Pistons, as Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman played for Eastern Conference (and Detroit) coach Chuck Daly.

Eight players. Three dynasties. One team of stars, struggling to make a showing as a superior Western Conference team took over the game. One team, featuring three sets of players that would represent every Eastern Conference team to win an NBA title across the 80s and 90s.

It was the moment I understood what rivalries were made of. My father’s co-worker was a Detroit Pistons fan. I had taken on the mantle of Chicago Bulls follower, and my father worked through the demise of his Celtics. The three of us, watching a meaningless game in February, represented the Eastern Conference’s tendencies. The past. The present. The future.

The Bulls would falter again in the playoffs. For the first time, I understood defeat. The next season, they would finally win it all, and for the first time I understood what it mean to follow a winner. I rabidly began following the NBA, subscribing to Beckett Basketball Monthly and collecting cards as if each Harvey Grant pull was the next Honus Wagner.

All because of one player. But not because of anything he had done on the court.

My favorite memory might be Jordan’s shapeshifting lay-up during the 1991 NBA Finals; from dunk to scoop, it still seems impossible to replicate to this day. The lasting image might be Jordan clinging to the O’Brien Trophy as if it was a long lost child, crying for years of challenge, for overcoming his doubters, for finally bringing a championship to a Bulls franchise that had gone without for so long.

But my first memory is still that afternoon in February. Jordan was there, but he wasn’t king. Instead, he was just another player, on one of the biggest stages in sports, standing alongside his rivals – both past and present – playing as a team, despite the rivalries and hatred that existed between each player.

It’s not just the moment I realized I was a Jordan fan, or a Bulls fan.

It was the moment I realized I was a basketball fan.

August 20th, 2009

(c) Jerry Lodriguss

Great sports photography.

Seriously. I could look at this stuff all day.

(c) Jerry Lodriguss

From Jerry Lodriguss’s collection.

(Via Ball Don’t Lie)

August 7th, 2009

In 2000, I visited England. It was my first time abroad, and I fell in love. For a few years after that I sought any Anglo-centric media I could get my hands on, and it was a delight to discover the late night broadcasts of BBC World Service on Minnesota Public Radio.

What I remember most about that initial discovery was the hourly sports update. The speed of the broadcast seemed to double as a higher-pitched announcer rattled off score after score, a new language of sports from a country that focused on soccer and cricket instead of baseball and basketball.

Half of the words were unfamiliar; it seemed, with names of foreign sports stars sprinkled across the airwaves, to form a constant stream of new vocabulary. The rhythm of the news bounced along like jockey and horse, the cadence wrapping things up in a photo finish. It was mesmerizing – like hearing fluent Italian for the first time.

Which brings us to today. My vehicle has been radio-less since last year, and I’ve fallen away from my former sports radio addiction. So, while driving Kerrie’s car, I flipped it to our local sports channel and was pleased to discover the same rhythmic performance in American sports radio.

Baseball, basketball, tennis, golf – numbers and words, delivered in harmony, streaming through in a wave of information. I was hypnotized. I wondered what it sounded like to the sports illiterate. It must seem as though it’s the same foreign language I remember from BBC sports coverage – both exciting and confusing.

It never fails to capture my attention. The five minute Sportscenter update is more than an audible representation of box scores – it’s the embodiment of balance: each game with one winner and one loser, each positive story balanced with a negative, each foreign word paired with something familiar.

A chaos of information shaped into an almost-beautiful presentation of lyrical dexterity.

Category: Journalism, On..., Sports

June 4th, 2009

One unfortunate side effect to our quest to save money by ditching cable is that my love affair with NBA basketball gets relegated to the nether regions of the schedule.

During the regular season, it’s only a Sunday afternoon indulgence. Through the first round of the playoffs, only one in sixteen games seem to make their way to the big three. And once the Conference Finals have started, basketball has disappeared from my life altogether (not including the Internet).

But here we stand, staring down the barrel of yet another NBA Finals. An NBA Finals that can be summed up as David vs. Goliath, that is, if David was a giant and his only weakness was that no one knew who the hell he is.

I expect this to be a long, tough and physical Finals. Tougher than last year, and (unfortunately) probably more exciting. As a fresh-faced Boston fan, it’s my contractual obligation to root against the Lakers. But barring a sudden rule change that allowed the Celtics to sneak into the Finals without actually winning anything worthwhile, there isn’t another team I’d rather root for than the Orlando Magic.

I was 16 when Orlando last made the Finals. There, they faced off against a Houston Rockets team that had already won a title the year before. By butting up against an established power, an Orlando team – featuring a fresh Shaquille O’Neal and blossoming Nick Anderson – sought to prove themselves against a league superpower.

They were underdogs. They had no chance.

And despite the fact that they knocked my Pacers out of the playoffs just a round or two earlier, I couldn’t help but root for them.

It was my conference, after all. My Eastern Conference. My pride was at stake – best be beaten by the team that won it all, right? Best be a footnote in the championship recap video, rather than missing entirely from it altogether.

This year is very much the same. Orlando knocked Boston out. Dwight Howard plays the part of Shaquille O’Neal, Rashard Lewis acts as Nick Anderson. And Kobe Bryant stands in the way – a star with three rings, a sure fire Hall of Famer, a man looking to cement his legacy, to prove that the three-peat in the early 00’s wasn’t a fluke. That he can do this himself, without the big man he once stood next to.

That big man. Shaquille O’Neal. Who brings this analogy back full circle. Who was able to win a title without Kobe. That big man, who knows what Dwight Howard is going through, understands, because he was in that position – facing up not only the best team remaining, but his own insecurity in reaching the Finals at such an early age.

Dwight would do well to ask Lebron James what it means to get to the Finals before you’ve even been able to live up to the hype. Maybe he already did. After all, he’s already gone Cleveland to get here.

No one expects the Magic to win this thing. No one wanted this match-up. We’re missing Lebron vs. Kobe. Or Lebron vs. Carmello. Hell, we’re missing a rematch of last year’s Finals.

Instead, we’re looking at something we didn’t expect. A team that has come into its own earlier than we thought they would. A manchild that’s just seconds away from becoming the biggest thing in the league. Both literally and metaphorically. And he’s going against a perfect foil. Kobe: the anti-Michael Jordan; blessed with so much talent yet none of the approachability, Lex Luther to Superman, respected yet hated.

These metaphorical side stories have been happening for the past four rounds. But I’ve missed them all, only picking up the static from the Internet and text messages.

My Amazing happened all through second hand sources.

Until now. The Finals start tonight. And I’ve got a date with another year of basketball history.