Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes, or "Period. New paragraph. Capital B..."

Hello. Today's schedule includes a reptile, the Gold Cup Final, and my upcoming trip.

- In a quick Editor's note, later in this post, the U.S. soccer team provides the second entry in my new series "Now that's a real sports picture." I had only previously used this once, and since this is the second time, that makes it a series.

We begin, as you might expect, with crocodile news.

- I think a lot of people have heard of Gustave. Apparently, not nearly enough of them. Please, go to about the 3:00 mark of this video.

One person on youtube had this reaction:
np67 (1 month ago)
Hopefully Gustave is alive and well. I hope he copntinues to eat the people there. Its the foodchain afterall.

According to National Geographic, Gustave was last seen in April of this year. That's a couple months ago. Let's assume he's still alive. And let's be clear: when Gustave was seen in April, it was while he was, you know, attacking fisherman. He's not exactly packing it in and joining the senior tour. He's not doing the lecture tour. He will not be doing a couple nights at the Palms.

Let me say, I'm all for diplomacy whenever it's feasible. I think we should be able to sit down with almost anyone except for the most radical and unreasonable people. But not even Bill Richardson could get Gustave to back down. Hell, I'm not sure if Bill Russell could stop this thing.

Here's how you make the decision of whether Gustave can be allowed to roam free. He's about 20 feet in length. Look around the room you're in right now. Imagine something 20 feet long, and fat, being in that room. Now imagine that you're in the room too.

Can you imagine if this was happening, if this thing was killing hundreds of people in, oh, I don't know, FLORIDA? Would we let this go on? The U.S. does some -- not quite enough -- to support the research of AIDs in Africa, and some to help with poverty, and not nearly enough to help politically. But isn't this something we could solve pretty quickly?

You shoot this thing with a giant dart, loaded with tranquilizer. Maybe two darts. (Maybe throw in a couple shots of Jim Beam, just to be sure.) If the dart holds, Gustave gets put out to pasture and eats chicken cutlets -- and hopefully brings in much-needed money for the people of Burundi -- for the rest of his days.

If the dart doesn't hold? Let's try bullets.

I really like nature, and I prefer to let animals do what they do. But not here. Not at our expense. This is going too far. The fact that the people who share drinking water with this monster are surrounded by the wreckage of their own horrific civil war only makes this decision more obvious to me. Gustave cannot stay there.

I remember reading at one point that Patrice Faye, the naturalist who's followed Gustave closely for some time, was against killing this dinosaur. And originally, I was with him. But something Faye said has been rattling around in my skull for a while, and it seems to have stuck somewhere.

Faye thought that Gustave might be so virile, and have lived so long and been with so many female crocs that he could single-handedly re-populate the area with a new generation of big crocs. Now, I get his motivation here, as a naturalist.

But do you know who's not all that crazy about a new generation of super crocs? A kid who's lost a leg, or a brother, or a father to a reptile.

And hey, np67 (from youtube) -- why don't you go tell that kid where he is on your foodchain?

Okay, I went long on that. But it still felt right. And if you want another reason why I'm not okay with Gustave hangin' out, check the last dash-point in this entry.

- Now, let's get to soccer.

Gold Cup Final - United States 2, Mexico 1 (extended highlights here)

If you were writing the story of the United States men's soccer team, our play in the first 971 minutes (10 games, 71 minutes) of 2007 gets a paragraph. Nine wins, one draw, no losses, 24 goals from 13 players -- nine, count 'em NINE for Landon Donovan -- and a genuinely dominant peformance in our corner of the world. At the end of that paragraph, you'd talk about Mexico scoring first in the Gold Cup final, and then you'd mention Donovan's penalty-kick equalizer.

Then, if you were dictating the story, you'd say, "Period. New paragraph. 'Benny Feilhaber...' "

That's how big Feilhaber's goal was. Unless I turn out to be way, way wrong on this, we can now begin to look at this team's timeline in terms of before and after this goal.

Whew. Okay. I'm gonna' try not to go too far on this, but this is a big deal.

Of all the stories coming out of this tournament -- Demarcus Beasley's audition for big-time European soccer, Landon Donovan's 4-for-4 penalties, Bring Ching getting more and more cleverer -- Benny Feilhaber is the most interesting to me.

Feilhaber's game-winner -- excuse me, tournament-winner -- is now getting the label of the greatest goal in U.S. history. And you'll get no argument on that here.

Benny grew up in Brazil and moved up here when he was six. He bounced around, and eventually finished high school in California. Here's the single most incredible part of Feilhaber's story. He got his attention after appearing with our under-20 national team, but he was only called-up to the team after playing well at UCLA... as a walk-on.

Yeah, that's right. The guy who just scored the greatest goal in our country's soccer history got his big-time start when he walked onto a field in Southern California -- probably rubbing elbows with a dozen stoners and foreign exchange students -- and said, "Excuse me, coach, my name is Benny Feilhaber. I'd like to play some soccer for you."

Everything's been happening pretty fast since then for Feilhaber, now 22. His paychecks come from Hamburg SV right now, but I'm going to guess someone else will want him after what he's done this year. In 543 minutes, Feilhaber has one assist and two goals. The first goal -- shown very coolly just after the 3:00 mark here -- was good. The second goal was good enough to start a new paragraph.

While Feilhaber's been on the field, the U.S. has scored 15 goals and given up only three. That's in only eight games, and -- whoop, here comes the big point -- those eight games are Benny Feilhaber's FIRST EIGHT GAMES on the national team.

Wake up the kids. It's time to start watching the national team.

We're marching out a second-tier squad of youngster for the Copa America. There, we'll meet Argentina, which is bringing in an almost full squad. That game happens on Thursday.

We are not marching these kids out to a slaughter. We're not bringing our best group, but I am now of the delusional opinion that our second team shouldn't get blown-out by anybody. By the way, there is one player of note who will be available for Copa America.

Demarcus Beasley burns his fingers touching teammate Benny Feilhaber, mere moments before Feilhaber burst into flames.

Now that, folks, is a real sports picture.

- Okay, now to my last news of the day. This one files under "Self serving crap," but if you're a reader here, you might care too.

I'm leaving the country this summer. I'll be heading to South Africa for a 3-month trip, where I'm accompanying the girlfriend. She's doing a semester abroad, and I'm going to volunteer coaching youngsters.

I don't think I need to explain that this means the blog will take a severe turn away from it's current form. Instead of constant yammering about the NBA -- my God, enough! -- I'll be writing more about my personal experience in that country. I'm trying to think of a good way to market those kind of stories. I'm thinking of filing them under "Clash of cultures," but I think I'd get a lot more interest if I called it "Clash of vultures." That sounds like something people would want to know about. (And as Junior from Reno 911 would note, Clash of Vultures is a wicked-awesome band name.)

And now I'm going to announce something that hopefully puts a lot of pressure on me and makes me actually do what I'm about to say. Given the amount of free time I expect to find around my volunteering schedule, I would like to use the opportunity to start writing a book about the 2010 World Cup.

Becuase I'm not exactly, uh, being published right now, I plan to market the book in this way: report as much as possible during this trip, and post the first chapter on the blog once I feel ready. So, that's something to look forward to.

And now, to come full circle: being in Port Elizabeth puts me roughly 7,000 miles away from a certain murderous reptile. And 7,000 miles is far too close for me. If somebody doesn't get that thing out of the water before I get there, I might -- after a good amount of really good whiskey -- think about killing the son of a bitch myself.

That'll do for now. Back later this week with my big, fat ugly NBA draft coverage.

Thanks for coming out. You've been great.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Notes, or What's with the logo?


Quite a few things to get to today. (Reader comments, my logo, the origin of this blog's name a fascinating baseball story, not one but two internet endorsements, and the amazingly incredibly amazing U.S. Soccer team.)

- First, I've changed my settings so that you don't have to sign-up for anything to leave a comment. I'm sorry I didn't do this earlier. Imagine me writing this blog as a kid inheriting his dad's car, and every once in a while he hits a button by accident and goes, "Hey, it's got windshield wipers!" I'm still learning. (Another example would be that I'll start making my links open in a new window, so you won't leave the site when you click on something.)

I encourage you to leave comments. In fact, I insist. Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here? Surely I've written something by now that you either agreed or disagreed with. Let me know about it.

My only request is that you keep it relatively clean. Although I don't think she is at present, it's entirely possible that my grandmother could read some of this someday. So if you write something obscene, I'll find out who you are send it to your grandma.

- In a rather obvious Editor's note, I've updated the site with a logo. It's not going to win me any awards, but I think it's a step up. I'm especially proud of the the header because I did it, and the only thing I've ever successfully drawn in my life was a conclusion.

I'll cover the subjects in the logo one-by-one eventually, but just so we're clear (clockwise from top left): Satchel Paige, George Gipp, Bill Russell, Jim Thorpe, George Best, Hunter Thompson, Elliott Smith, Earnest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Bob Dylan.

For me, that's the list. There are obvious exceptions, people I wished would fit -- Pele, Sugar Ray Robinson, Steve Nash, Pedro Martinez, Mos Def, Dennis Bergkamp -- but if I look at my life in terms of writing and sports, those guys at the top of this page are the who and the why.

But there are a few things that I noticed as I picked my essentials. Apparently I like them to burn bright, especially when they're young. Some of them burned for a while and somehow sustained. (Dylan, Russell, Steinbeck, Paige.) Others burned, and, though they seemed to have survived the flames, could not stand to see the dimming of their own fuse. (Thompson, Thorpe, Hemingway.) Booze killed Gipp senselessly one night in 1920. It did the same thing to Best, though it took decades to do so. And at the age of 34, Elliott Smith took his own life in 2003.

I do not claim to share any of the things that makes me admire these men. But all I want, all I've ever wanted since I knew how to want something, is to burn bright, if only for a while.

- Just to knock this one down, Elliott Smith should get credit for naming this blog. "Needle in the hay," is a perfect and perfectly sad little song about drug addiction, and I wish I had a good reason to use it for the name. My best explanation is that I think it might be the best thing he ever did, and if you know his work like me, that's enough.

- Now, the Satchel Paige connection. It seems that the two of us both did a stint in the same town. And, incredibly, it was not Washington, D.C. Not once, but twice, car dealer and equal-opportunity baseball man Neil Churchill used cash and a free Chrystler to lure Satch to Bismarck to play minor league ball.

According to this account, the first time this happened was in... get ready for it... 1934.

That's right. North Dakota -- a state that usually seemed to me to have about as much color as crust-less Wonder Bread -- was integrated more than a dozen years before the bigs. Those, by the way, would have been the 12 years where Satch would have made his case as the greatest pitcher of all time.

Instead he was stuck inside of Bismarck with the Mobile blues again.

- To the internet we go.

I had written previously about how badly the New York Times was screwing up it's Page one podcast. Turns out, somebody was way ahead of me. The Washington Post has been doing a "From the Pages of the Post" podcast since January of last year. Go get it. Then listen to "The Sole Survivor" from last Monday. (Or read it here.)Please, get to this story before some big team of awful Hollywood writers gets to it. Go get the real thing.

- On a related note, I'd also covered youtube, and how companies should embrace it -- and profit from it -- instead of fighting it.

Well, thanks to the good folks at CONCACAF (North American's soccer conference), the message of those words has served me well. Though I can't watch the Gold Cup because I've dropped the Fox Soccer Channel, I can now see extended highlights courtesy of the concacaf channel of youtube. Now, this is America, and this is soccer, so not a lot of people are tuning in. But can you imagine how many people, on a worldwide level, would watch the NFL, NBA, and MLB if they did the same thing?

- So, now to disect those highlights. We finally gave up a goal to Panama in the quarters. But it was late, and we were up 2-0, and they caught a lucky deflection when Oguchi Onyewu poked at it. No excuse, I admit.

But watching this game, it should have been 3 or 4-1, and it could have been five or six. I know, that's not a good sign, to not be finishing your chances. But that's a lot better than not having those chances.

I've been watching the U.S. closely since about 2000. And as far as technical skill, creativity, and team speed, we've never been this entertaining or this good. Suddenly Demarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, Benny Feilhaber, Brian Ching, Landon Donavan, Taylor Twellman, even Oguchi Onyewu -- all of them -- can make that all-important short or long pass to put a teammate in open space.

And we're spending so much time with the ball that other teams are hardly even getting a look at the goal.

Let's go back to January. Bradley's first game in charge saw a patchwork U.S. team facing what was essentially Denmark's back-up team. Denmark took the lead in the 37th minute, and the Bradley era was off to a nightmare start.

We went on to score three goals that day. Then we beat Mexico 2-0, and then Donny hit-up Ecuador for the best hat trick in U.S. history in a 3-1 win.

Then we played a boring 0-0 draw againast Guatemala. But since then?

4-1 over China, 1-0 in a Guatemala rematch, 2-0 Trinidad and Tobago, 4-0 over El Salvador and 2-1 over Panama. Between China and Panama, we went, let's see, FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN MINUTES without giving up a goal. For all the Americans who rip soccer for not having any scoring, this is ideal: we're scoring, they're not.

For the year, we've scored 21 goals and given up three. One tie, eight wins, and we're not going to lose to Canada or Mexico in this tournament.

I just, I can't make this more clear. We're so, so good right now.

For me, the most telling moment of this tournament may not have been a goal or a tackle. Here's the scene: Late in the game, we're up 2-0. Donny took a long pass over the defense and fed a wide-open Clint Dempsey in front of goal.

10 years ago, any player on the U.S. soccer team would have shot immediately, and probably scored. Instead, Dempsey took a touch, faked a shot and ditched a defender before losing the ball to another one.

He should've scored, yes. But this, this foolish mistake, is a great moment in United States soccer. This was a moment of Dempsey's inherent creativity and flair and cojones leading to madness.

But, as they say, genius and madness are neighbors, and sometimes they bump into each other when they both leave for work in the morning.

And that's how I know this team is so good: I would never have been compelled to write that sentence three years ago.

That'll do it for now.

Back soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Notes, or We're taking on water and we're all goin' down

Hello and welcome back. Today: Barry Bonds' home run chase, the Cavs' chances in the NBA Finals, and the lack of secrets in modern sports.

Let's get right into it.

- In baseball news, it's now June. And if the playoffs started tomorrow it'd be pretty weird, because they still start in October. Check back in August for more updates.

Meanwhile, Barry Bonds hit another home run last night. This one was career No. 747 for Barry. The next one will be No. 748, and the one after that should be 749, according to ESPN.com's Pedro Gomez. Then after that, the last number will reset at 0, and the second number will become a 5, which looks like this: 750. I know it can be hard to keep all of this straight, and I commend ESPN for trying to stay on top of this rapidly-developing development.

- Now, to be quite honest, I'm going to take the day off from the NBA Finals. You might find good things written about Game 2, but you won't find them here.

How's this for an exchange though: with Lebron out in the first quarter, Cleveland missed three 3s in a row. San Antonio countered by getting 12 points from five different players. The score went from 16-13 to 28-13, and it was never close after that. That shows how delicate these games are for Cleveland. Mr. James can stack up about a dozen points in the first or fourth quarter -- but not both. If it stays close in Cleveland, they probably win.

But three in a row? Those are long odds, and I don't feel like attaching my name to them.

On a side note, the title to my previous post -- "Notes, or Lebron James is Ricky Davis" -- was a thinly-veiled shot at Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith. Smith asserted previously in these playoffs that Lebron James is, as a player, comparable to Vince Carter. The Vince Carter, 28, whom Lebron, 22, had just thoroughly outplayed the previous series.

- Now, for an old-timey thought on modern sports culture. Please wait while I put on my bowler hat and pack my tobacco pipe. Prepare to be regaled.

A few days ago, Gilbert Arenas said he would opt out of his contract after the upcoming season. This joined Kobe Bryant's announcement/retraction of his desire to leave Los Angeles. Now, if I had my choice, 10 times out of 10 I'd hang with Gil. (That hat -- my God, what a hat.) And Arenas' decision makes sense on a financial and a competitive level, while Kobe's... well, I've dealt with that.

But what I don't like about Gilbert's announcement was just that -- it was an announcement. Before a season even began, Gil cast a shadow of doubt over his future in Washington, and he made this shadow painfully visible to the public.

The great line came from Otto Von Bismarck: "To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making."

I happened to spend my formative years in Bismarck. And I'm smelling sausage.

Arenas and Kobe are a part of the continuing Linda Tripp-ification of our culture. It seems that almost everyone in America is willing to give out any information they have into a microphone, with or without solicitation. We'll sell out everything we've got, including our own dignity, as long as we can get the word out.

We have become a culture of leakers.

Kobe himself was furious at a "Lakers insider" who alleged that Kobe had run Shaq out of town. How do you like that? A leaker, angry at a leaker -- and a Laker leaker, no less. (You want a leak? Here's a damn leak.)

They do this stuff across the pond in the soccer world, but it's much, much different. The "rumor mill" that surrounds the English, Italian, and Spanish leagues -- particularly the big teams -- is the stuff of tabloids. There are dozens of websites that take hundreds of tips from anyone who claims to have any idea of what player will be bought by what team.

Literally, these tips tend to read like this: "My uncle is a garbage man in London, and he just found an envelope that had been sent by (club) to (player), so my uncle thinks that's where he's headed."

Honestly, they're all like that. And the British press run their own rumors around, and no one takes anything very seriously until they see ink on paper. Because they're just cartoon rumors -- people laugh out loud at most of them.

But that's not how it works here. Our rumors? Our leakers? They tend to be right. They actually release inside information for very little personal gain. (Except for these gentlemen.) For the most part, we are leaking just to leak.

Today, each of the major three sports in America is almost completely transparent. Rarely is a deal done or a move made that catches anyone by surprise. No idea that starts in a front office or locker room stays there.

Whereas years ago, fans saw only the end product of professional sports, we now get to see it all before it gets ground up with lots of fat and spice and called sports.

And now that I get a good look at it as it rolls down the assembly line, I'm seeing a lot of hoof.

And now I'll take off the bowler hat, I'll cue the gospel choir, and I'll stand at the lectern for a moment and preach. You leak bad, unfair or dangerous things that are going on at your workplace or in your apartment building. You leak the names of serial killers and bank robbers. You don't leak which starters the Yankees are looking at, you loser.

Okay, enough preaching.

I can't really blame Gilbert Arenas for leaking, I can't blame Samuel Eto'o. I can't even blame Kobe. Well, okay, I can blame Kobe.

But we are all to blame. We've created this culture, or at least allowed it. We all leak, or would leak, and if nothing else -- if in no other way than knowing something we probably shouldn't -- we all benefit from those leaks.

And if we don't stop soon, we'll all be in the water.

So now, a quick and vital Editor's Note, and one that I hope to honor as long as I possibly can.

- Don't leak to me. I don't want to hear it. I'll be just fine getting the news when it actually becomes news. If something is going to happen tomorrow, I'll deal with it then.

Unless it's a flood, or lotto numbers, in which case I can be reached at verbal_kint_187@hotmail.com.

That'll do it.

Good day.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Notes, or Lebron James is Ricky Davis

Hello all. Today, my new job offer, Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and in soccer news, the Gold Cup gets underway.

Let's get right to it.

- First, you'll see I re-titled all of my "Notes" entries. It just become a few too many, and I myself could hardly navigate among them. The headlines will just feature on one part of the post, though I will continue to cover multiple topics in individual posts. That's where the labels come in. I think the titles are prIetty much self-explanatory. "Battlefield girth" refers to how incredibly long that post became. And also, you can't make a reference to Battlefield Earth that's not funny. Not even this.

- Okay, now I need to address something. Some of you may have heard about this already. I, Mike Mullen, have been offered a very important job. And it looks like I'm going to take it. Though I'm not sure why.

I know this raises a lot of questions for you.

"But Mike, why didn't you ever mention that you held that kind of a position?" Look, I was in charge of the Navy. I'm not trying to downplay it, but, come on - this is the NBA playoffs, and I'm not going to lose readers just going on about my aircraft carriers.

"Mike, you said you were 20. You don't look 20." If there's anything more stressful than managing a branch of the armed forces, it's sports blogging. I've been aging rapidly since the NCAA tournament started. And then in my off hours, I'm in charge of the entire U.S. Navy? Come on. We're not fighting a lot in the water right now, but these aren't exactly rowboats out there.

"Mike, why do you want this job?" I'm not really sure. It seems like a fall-guy kind of job. If we get things under control in Iraq, all the credit's going to go the generals on the field. And that might be the right thing, but if things go poorly -- and how could they not? -- I get some blame, and I get tossed out of office in a couple years. And then what do I got? The lecture circuit? But again, it looks like I'm going to take it.

And finally, "Given your pending appointment as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will you continue to do your sports blog?" I don't see why not.

- All right, just a few very quick thoughts on Lebron James. He had a bad Game 1, and Cleveland only scored 76 points. It seemed oddly reminiscent of Game 1 against Detroit, where Lebron struggled and Cleveland scored only - you guessed it - 76 points. So Lebron, having just survived that series against a battle-tested team, knows that a series does not pivot on its first game. But Game 2...

Cleveland has lost only one game at home in these playoffs, and that was the Game 5 shocker against New Jersey. Cleveland then followed that by storming out to an early lead in New Jersey before letting the Nets come all the way back in the fourth quarter. But after New Jersey got to within one point, Lebron got Cleveland from 67 points up to 86 over six minutes, and that was all it took.

That sounds familiar.

6-3-07, "Notes, or Kobe Bryant gets what he wants"
"And Lebron found a second wind in a five-minute span in the fourth quarter, when he got them from 77 points to 92. And that was all it took."

In the clinching games of the last two series, Lebron has helped pile-up a bunch of points -- when it seemed like no one had it going -- and made his team win the game.

This feels a bit like last year's Finals, where the Heat had by far the best player on the floor - Wade - and then Dallas might have had second, third, and fourth. (Nowitzki, Howard, and Terry.) But nearly every time it mattered, Wade had the ball in his hands and made something happen. That left it up to his teammates to get a few, even just a couple stops in the closing minutes. Defense and hustle make for a good combination with a single great player.

Let me remind you that Malik Rose, James Posey, and Samaki Walker have all won NBA championships in the last few years. Not one of those guys has any recognizable skill other than "tall." Can you imagine those three playing a game of HORSE? You'd send them out on a nice summer afternoon, and then come see who won in November.

If Cleveland can muck up the game enough, and is only losing by 5 or 8 points, and Varejao and Gooden can make a couple plays... Cleveland can win Game 2, or even a Game 6.

Now, one note on Lebron. I remember when he was a rookie, and I think he played a Christmas day game against Tracy McGrady's Magic. At one point, T-Mac was guarding Lebron and knew that the shot clock was winding down. McGrady got right up on Lebron, who had the ball some 20 feet from the hoop. McGrady jumped just as Lebron jumped, and had his hand up to block the shot. But Lebron simply shot -- shot, not threw -- the ball way up... the ball left the screen... then splashed back down and in to beat the clock.

I can't find a clip of that, but I realized at that point -- having already seen Lebron's dunks and passes -- that nothing was impossible for this kid. (Nothing.)

- Also, our men's national team has won five games this year, and tied the other. After a snoozer finished 0-0 against Guatemala in March, we beat their "defense first, defense second" strategy on Thursday on a goal from Clint Dempsey for a 1-0 result in our first pool game of the Gold Cup. I'll have to get to Dempsey at some later date, but one person is demanding that I say something about him: Bob Bradley. The rookie U.S. coach has gotten the team to show up five out of six games, and let's make clear that those are his first six games as coach. Seems like a good sign for Bob. (Not so much this guy.)

They're not just winning. They're scoring good goals, they're scoring on penalties and free kicks, and they are not just watching the other team on defense. They're taking some risks, they're beating the other team to loose balls and they tend to look like they might win the game.

They play again in about an hour, meeting Trinidad and Tobago in their second game of the Gold Cup.

So a quick programming note on where to find the game: you're going to have to get Fox Soccer Channel. I should make it clear then, that the Gold Cup is an international tournament. And not only are these games on during reasonable broadcast times, they're being played here, on American soil.

Not only did ESPN not buy the rights to these games, it let an optional, super-bundled-400 channel cable station beat it out. Now I don't get the Fox Soccer Channel, so when the Guatemala game started, I checked-in with the live blog on the ussoccer website. After the game was over, ESPN.com picked-up the AP story, and I kept checking back to the site for the highlights. At least, you know, they'd put up Dempsey's goal.

Well, you can go looking right now, and the only place you're going to find it is youtube.

You got big fat pockets, ESPN. Next time, talk to the national team. Try to get it so these games don't run up against the NBA Finals and the Belmont Stakes. Then reach into your pockets, and buy some coverage of a sport that isn't three year old poker. I know they've done very well lately, but there's some part of me that would be happy if they lost a ton of money on their commitments to the Hey What's With the Walls League and the National Turn Left Association. Instead, I'm afraid these things will play out well for them, and I'll have to leave this country for good after some time.

More on that next time. I mean it.

Now, where did I put the keys to the U.S.S. Louisville?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

I am not Lebron James

Here now, a reprint of my classic Lebron column from high school. That's right folks - I was in high school at the same time as Lebron. He's more than a full year my senior.

This means that, with me at 20 years and 10 months, I still have an outside shot of getting Lebron James to buy me beer. I admit it's unlikely, but Lebron can let me know if he's free. Or at least Scott Pollard.

I'm re-posting this because it's interesting for me to look back at how I used to write. This would've been my third or fourth column, probably, and other than the writing and the jokes, I kind of like it. I'm also proud of this column because - although I think I still won the award - the column was criticized at my state journalism conference for being "too hip." That's what happens when you live in North Dakota and you print the words "street cred."

If you want the fresh stuff, feel free to scroll down past this.

Here goes.

I am not Lebron James

He's in high school. I'm in high school.
He drives a chromed-out silver Hummer valued at $55,000. I drive a dirty cream-colored '88 Ford Tempo that hums, valued at $55.
He's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I'm a subscriber.
He has a strict no-autographs-in-school policy. So do I.
His is by choice.
If you haven't figured it out, the "he" in question is Lebron James--that's 'Bron or Bronnie if you're on his short list (as Shaq and Michael Jordan are) and King James if you're not.
James is the next odds-on big thing in basketball. He's 6'7" and 215, all smooth muscle and basketball IQ, with a vertical that makes Kobe green. He's MJ with tats and street cred, and this year he's probably gotten more headlines than the man himself.
This included the recent episode in which James was barred from competition for receiving throwback jerseys as gifts, then reinstated only days later.
Thanks to SI and ESPN the magazine covers and the "can't-miss" scouting reports, James has become a household name--and he hasn't even been in most households. St. Vincent-St. Mary's, a prep school in Ohio, did play a couple of games on ESPN 2, and others have been featured on Pay-Per-View.
Did I mention he's 17?
People have a problem with this. They say the way his ego is being coddled and stroked by pundits and scouts and fans is bad. It reflects poorly on society. We're putting too much pressure on the kid.
No, it may not be the best scenario for a young man like James to be glorified before he can buy a pack of smokes and vote. He was brought up without a real father figure, and people think that will hurt him when he's faced with fame's excess of women and drugs and opportunities for self-destruction. (See: Len Bias.)
But if people think that instant fame is going to be a bad thing for Lebron, they need to take a second look at the context in which he's succeeding. His game is more than a window out of the projects: It's an elevator to a window to a rocket launcher out of the projects. This is a kid whose family gets by on welfare checks, whose dad split too soon to mean much, whose chances are limited by the color of his skin.
Where would Lebron be without his game?
Imagine if Lebron grew up in Wilton, and Rich Hovland recruited him to come play for us. Bismarck would become a hoops hotbed--we'd probably be though of as having Canada's best basketball program.
Would you question the morality of Lebron's exploitation if he was from Bismarck? Or would you buy a ticket every Friday?
I don't blame the NBA and its coaches and scouts for Lebron's early stardom, either. It's their job to find the best possible players and put the ball in their hands, regardless of age and even honorability. When I watch a pro game, I think "Are these the best 10 basketball players that these teams could find for me?", not, "What can my child learn from a man like Rasheed Wallace?"
The best indication I have that his head is in the right place is that we've seen his love for the game and competition--the one aspect that set Larry, and then Michael, and now Kobe above the rest of their class.
When Lebron got nailed with the free throwbacks, he could've let it stand. He could've signed a $25 million contract with Nike the next day and started making commercials in time for the All-Star game.
Instead he worked to be reinstated by the Ohio athletic commission, and came away with a slap on the wrist and a new lease on his amateur career.
Two nights later, Lebron reminded everyone why they really care and dropped a highlight reel 52, once more a man among boys.
Thank God. We were starting to lose sight of what this was all about--a kid and his game.

Notes, or Kobe Bryant gets what he wants

Hello. Today: the Cavs reach the NBA Finals, and Kobe Bryant asks for it. But we begin with rage.

I can say now that I've survived the most frustrating night of my technological life. And I'm not a tech guy, really. I try to do really simple things with my computer. I want to use a wireless connection to receive e-mail, get news and sports, and download music and podcasts. And over the course of four hours last night I found that I was completely unable to do any of these things, using a total of two laptops and a desktop computer.

This is how the world will end folks. Not directly, not like the internet will somehow rise up and ovetake us someday. But some relatively powerful leader, in a country that may even normally be quite friendly, will be trying to bid on a set of golf clubs late one night, because what the Hell else does he have to do? And suddenly his connection will cut out.

Then, he'll try and listen to some music, just to relax, only to discover that all, yes all of his music has completely disappeared. And while he's trying to figure these things out, his computer, now virus-stricken, will begin to move about as quickly as a triple-amputee tortoise.

That's how World War III starts, folks. That's when, if you have the option, you say, "Igor," or "Sven, get me ze nuclear codes."

Needless to say, I'm a little burnt up. Let me give you an example of my mood last night.

My girlfriend and I live in a nice little duplex, 50 feet away from some raliroad tracks. We and our neighbor lock our inside back and front doors, but not the outside back door. Now, the outside back door gives access to the stairs to our basement. We leave a light on in the basement. But at night, you can't help but thinking that some fugitive mental patient has just hopped a train and decided to hide out in our basement until we come down looking for a sock. The basement where the previous renters conveniently left a table saw, you know, just in case said escapee feels like cutting me into a few pieces.

Put it this way: my girlfriend won't go down there at night. I will, but I always have to reassure myself: "There's nobody down here." And then my second thought is, "Well, I guess it would only have to happen once, and I'd be in a lot of trouble."

But last night I marched downstairs for a T-shirt without hesitation. My thinking was whatever was down there wanted no part of me. That's how pissed off I was.

I wrote previously about how Isaiah, Michael and Kobe's great teams seemed at times to be driven by fear, whereas Magic, Larry, D-Wade and Steve Nash inspired their teams with joy.

Although I've certainly tapped into this resource once or twice before, it probably hasn't been to this extent. If my words are most often drawn from the pleasure I get from spouting off about this or that, then today they come directly from fury. Like B.J. Armstrong and Will Perdue, these words are inspired by the fear of what I might do to them if they don't come through for me.

Whew. All right, breathe Mike. Let's get the easy stuff out of the way.

- In an editorial note, I should point out that I've made a few changes to the site. I started labelling my posts, so people can sort through what they want. You'll notice that almost all of my entries have multiple labels. That's just how I write. Look for dashes ("-") to set off different subjects, and happy hunting.

I think the labels are pretty self-explanatory. "Old Stuff," are things I wrote in high school, and "Self Serving Crap," could really apply to anything I've written - or done - in the last four years.

- Another editor's note: the soccer picture that I posted a few entries down - "Notes" for May 21 - had to be changed when the one I was using disappeared. Apparently, not only did the people at Oral Roberts not care about me using the picture, they didn't even care that it existed. Instead I got a bunch of famous guys in there now, which is fine, because it still proves my point. Feel free to check it out.

- I didn't want to go too far the other day on Lebron, because, again, I don't like to put too much weight into one game. And if anyone was due for a letdown, it was him, after he not only scored every point for Cleveland in the last 20 minutes of Game 5, he seemed to almost take every dribble. Indeed there was a letdown, but Detroit countered it with a meltdown, and Daniel Gibson hit his wide open shots.

And Lebron found a second wind in a five-minute span in the fourth quarter, when he got them from 77 points to 92. And that was all it took.

My awful, overblown Finals analysis will come later. But I can tell you that to honor Lebron's first trip, I'll publish something I wrote about Mr. Rev. Dr. King James while I was in high school. So enjoy.

- Now, because this is what he wants, I'll talk about Kobe Bryant.

And don't you get fooled into thinking that this is coincidence. Don't think that Kobe doesn't realize that by pulling this crap right now that he's stealing the playoff's thunder.

Let me run your through something. Let's go back to the 2002-03 playoffs, where the Lakers got knocked out by eventual champion San Antonio. During that offseason, Kobe was accused of rape, and instantly became the number one and number two story on the news cycle. He got way more coverage that offseason than any player ever gets during the NBA Finals. Then during the preseason he and Shaq traded childish exchanges through the media.

Then during the season, Kobe played with Shaq, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. By the time Kobe retires, that team will statistically be the most talented team ever assembled.

And all the while, Kobe's rape case carried on, and as damaging evidence about the victim was leaked, public opinion turned in Kobe's favor. So now, not only was Kobe the most high-profile player on the most high-profile team, not only was he living in a city of four million people who by and large still loved him, but he wasn't even necessarily hated or villified anymore. Now, he was just hugely famous.

Now, anyone who has decent insight into Kobe Bryant - via The Last Season, for example - knows what this kind of attention might do to a young fellow like Kobe. He might, being someone who drove Phil Jackson to see a narcissism-specialist therapist, he might really embrace that level of fame.

And when that season ended, the Kobe saga went on. Phil left, Shaq left. And Kobe himself toyed with his free agency, dragging it out as long as possible before finally resigning.

Then came the 2004-05 season, which, thanks mostly to Rudy Tomjanovich's cancer, was a throwaway. So last year, with Kobe's past infamy and mega-fame somewhat forgotten...

He threw up 45 points a game for a month, including historic flame-throwing nights against Dallas and then, that thing in Toronto.

I might someday look stupid on this, but I don't think we'll ever, ever see an 81 on a statsheet again. Unless somebody really pisses off Gilbert Arenas. But I don't even think Arenas has that in him. Fifty, even 60... these are special numbers, accomplishments, the kind of thing you can put in your pocket.

But 81? That's a decision. It was a mission to humiliate the Toronto Raptors -- and a cold-blooded one at that. The Lakers won that game by 22. They needed 65 of those points, 70 at most. That means some of those points were just for Kobe.

Michael Jordan, who a lot of people accused of being less-than-selfless in his younger years, scored 55 or more points nine times in his career. Only one of those games did the Bulls win by more than 10 points. Three of those games, Chicago won by only two points. Basically, Chicago needed all of those points.

Kobe, meanwhile, has hit for 55-plus points in Lakers wins of 11, 14, 18, 22, and 39 points. In short, he was doing this because he wanted to. And that vindictive quality is something that even MJ had outgrown by the time he was 28.

Bryant is an interesting study because he seems so consumed, already, with his place in history. I think he knows that he is physically Michael Jordan's equal. And the fact that his competitive nature equals MJs basically puts him in a two-person category. So I can only assume that what drives him at this point is his obssession with where he stands in that category.

That's right, Kobe wants to be better than Michael Jeffery Jordan. The player we all said, "Well, we'll never see another of him." Someone came along the very next generation, ignored all of that, and set out to be even better. And there's probably something admirable in that.

But he's not better. He's never been as good at working with his teammates. And you never saw Jordan approach five or six 3-point attempts per game, not even when he was a kid.

Moreover, they ran different locker rooms. According to Phil, Scottie Pippen told No. 23 at one point, "I can't do it without you Michael." And Jordan cried.

Kobe has turned his back on more good players than Michael ever even played with.

But, knowing that he's only 28, and knowing what Michael did at 32, 33, and 34... for Kobe to come out a few days ago and tell Stephen A. Smith that he wanted to be traded, demanded, said that there was no other option... Listen Kobe, your young team will get older. (Andrew Bynum is only 19, and he outrebounded Kevin Garnett and Ben Wallace, head-to-head, during his first month in the league.) Another veteran will come out to LA, just to play with you, and if you want, Jerry West can sit in the owner's box.

But for Kobe to come out later that same day, and change his mind? That can only mean that Kobe is so used to turmoil - seems to welcome it, even - that for him to throw this out and take it back in one day is no big deal.

Time now for my real point. The real point is that Kobe said these things to radio reporters, and not someone in the Lakers' front office. Kobe Bryant, 28, is so thrilled to hear his own voice and see his own name in print that sometimes he doesn't even care what comes after it.

That'll be all for today.

Back soon with some more new stuff.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Notes, or Lebron James: Nike logo designer


Well, to lead off, I may have been a little bit right in asking people to back off the Lebron critcism a bit.

Unfortunately, my point is lost though. I wanted people to be patient, to give Lebron some time before we pass judgment. But Lebron went out and did what he did, and rendered my point completely moot.

I was asking his critics to shut up. Lebron made them shut up.

And I hope that not only did they shut up, but ate their words as well. I hope that every columnist, every blogger, every bar patron who said, "This kid just don't got it," I hope they all had to go back, tail between their legs, and say, "Boy, was I way wrong on this guy."

But I know that most of them didn't. Instead, they came out and said, "See, this is what I've been waiting for."

Oh, no no no, my friend. You don't wait for something like Lebron's Game 5. You don't ask someone to do that. How do you request something you've never seen before?

Now, I'm not going to do much Game 5 analysis. That's mostly because there have been a ton of words written about that game, and none of them do it justice. No hyperbole is too much.

I'm not going to break down Lebron's late efforts, mostly because they were new to me. You just don't see clutch dunks and game-winning layups. It's hard to analyze.

It's like when "The Wizard of Oz" hit theaters. If you had never seen a color movie before, and someone asked you to describe what it was like when they showed the scenes in Oz, what would you say?

Well I think for a lot of people, this was like that. Game 5 was our trip to Oz.

By the way, last year, everybody killed the Wizards for letting Lebron go baseline for a layup to win. First of all, Lebron caught an inbound pass, changed directions, tight-roped the out of bounds and got to the rim. There aren't three teams in the league who could've stopped that move.

And besides, here he was against the rough-and-tough Pistons, watching the same thing happen to them. So enough with the "You gotta' get a body on him," "You gotta' stay in front of him." Really? What do you think they were saying in the Pistons' huddle: "Watch Varejao?"

Look, they wanted to get a body on him. They wanted to foul. "No layups." Whatever. Sometimes you just can't do what you want to do.

When Ladanian Tomlinson is torching some NFL team, the coach is on the sideline saying, "Wrap him up! Put him on his ass!" Oh, really coach? We'll try that next time out. If it was that easy, if you could just decide to do something and then do it, we'd all go pro.

Now, my other quick insight, and this one has nothing to do with "scoring the basketball," as several jackass analysts would refer to it.

Late in the first overtime, Varejao fouled Rasheed Wallace on a shot with 30 seconds left with the Cavs up 100-96. It was a disaster of a foul, as it meant Detroit could get another possession and tie the game. (They did, and they did.)

But after Varejao's foul, Lebron didn't frown. He didn't put his palms up and go, "Why'd you foul?" And he didn't even slap Varejao's ass and go, "It's okay."

Lebron James, the coolest cat on the floor, walked over and hugged him. I don't know what he said during that embrace. But I would imagine it meant a lot to the frizzy Brazilian.
You want to talk about on-court awareness? This was more than basketball. This was psychology: Lebron knowing what this particular player, from this region of the world, making this giant mistake - he knew exactly what that guy needed. And Lebron knew that he would need this guy later, and would need him to be going full-bore.

And maybe - and this is what I hope - maybe it wasn't even psychology. It may have been out-and-out friendship.

But either way, it worked. Because, although the ESPN play-by-play didn't show it, I thought - and had it confirmed by others who watched the game - that Varejao got a finger on Billups' last-second shot. Just enough to kill the spin, and make it bounce off instead of in.

Now I don't know, nor will I ever, whether Varejao makes that play if Lebron doesn't hug him and say what he said. But I do know that these are two guys who like each other, and that they want to play together for a long time, and that Varejao likes Lebron for more than just his quick first step.

I think it's only a smart and caring player who hugs Varejao in that moment. Definitely Magic and Nash, maybe Bird... but this guy? Probably not.

One last thought. Although I've proven I can't take an action shot to save my life, I know a good photo when I see one. And when Lebron drove and jumped and brought the ball between his knees, I instantly knew that it would become an iconic image. A defender on each side of him, and two more behind him. And the good folks at Deadspin were smart enough to blow it up the next day.

Now, if I may make a bold prediction. We all know the Nike Jumpman logo.

I think you see where I'm going. If I had any ambition, I'd photoshop the Lebron picture, call Nike, and sell the image for $50 million. But instead I'll be lazy and just suggest it: trace Lebron in that picture, make him grey, make the rest of it black, and put it on some shoes and T-shirts.

More to come, perhaps even tonight...

Until then.