Friday, August 26, 2016

College Football: The Game of Games


There are crew cut guys in polo shirts stalking the sidelines; there's a meaningless poll released spawning a million blog posts deriding it as meaningless while at the same time assailing its rankings as the meanest injustice; there's a caller to Paul Finebaum who becomes so enraged about Alabama that he tears off his second shirt; there are inept announcers preparing to allude to hideous crimes and blatant institutional malfeasance as "off-field issues;" a thousand internet commentators simultaneously attempt to fire a thousand offensive coordinators.  College football returns this weekend.

College football breeds the most colorful atmosphere than any other major American sport because of the bizarre nature of its fans and participants: young people who are adept at drunkenness and memes, the unpaid players who study in theory alongside them, rich alumni boosters playing at the levers of power intriguing against the coaching staff, the coaching staff that consists of several hundred goateed guys all named Jimbo or Skip and replace each other every season, and the universities that inexplicably attached to this splitting atoms and producing articles about modes of The Masculine in John Donne or professional wrestling, and fuck saw demonstrations.

It's the passionate fans that mark the college football experience

The atmosphere lends itself to a bizarre, all-consuming spectacle. College football fans do not only participate in cheering their team on the field but also in the bizarre metacompetitions for facilities, for ever-flashier uniforms, and, most importantly, in the mind-bogglingly ludicrous battles for teenagers to join their teams. It is a game of games.

These battles are not new; the history of college football is the history of every underhanded recruiting tactic humanly possible wrapped in paeans to Amateur Athletics. What is new is that a sufficiently deranged fan can instantaneously read about a recruiting battle weighed by arbitrarily-assigned grades, insult the teenager and his loved ones for not choosing his or her team, taunt opposing fans on a message board and accuse them of dirty tactics, and then watch a bunch of videos of that monkey-chained-on-dog racing that they tried to ban from the Lake County Fair in a single afternoon.  It is now possible that a die-hard not only knows the two-deep going into training camp, but the projected two-deep two years from now with kids who have yet to graduate from high school or a litany of highly specific grievances about why they'll be suiting up for the Team Up State.

Smaller programs mainly concern themselves with attracting attention.  They have eye-catching uniforms, dyed turf, weeknight games. In my favorite move, Bob Diaco of UCONN unilaterally started a rivalry with Central Florida and created his own trophy and countdown clock while UCF desperately tried to deny that the rivalry existed.  I will remember this on my deathbed.

UCF reacted with the same bemused agitation that Golyadkin had in 
The Double when a second Golyadkin appears and no one else finds it 
odd and the footmen bodily throw him out of the fancier nineteenth-
century Russian tea houses

In big schools, the clashes are operatic. They include races to build more opulent facilities, bellicose press statements, and intrigue worthy of the most Habsburg of courts, if these intrigues were all conducted as grotesque, ham-handed attempts by middle-aged megalomaniacs to lure athletes to their opulent facilities so they can scream at them for several years and fake their own funeral as a motivational ploy.

A rare but inescapable species of fan not only wants to beat State at the big Homecoming game but also have more underwater treadmills than them and a better fundraising apparatus and better marketing so they sell more tickets so they can afford better coaches who can lure better players and beat them for all the Homecomings from now until the End Times.

LOVIE SMITH, WELCOME TO THE PARTY PAL

One does not have to look far on a Northwestern football blog for an example of an equally desperate and futile marketing war: the eternal battle to be Chicago's Big Ten Team.  You may think that the intense Northwestern-Illinois rivalry has cooled since Illinois fired forklift negligence spokesman Tim Beckman and then fired his replacement because he was tainted by him and hired Lovie Smith. You were wrong.

At Big Ten Media Day, a place for Big Ten coaches to put on suits and puff out their throat sacs and eyes spots for reporters, Lovie claimed that Illinois could become "Chicago's Team." This directly contradicts Northwestern's "Chicago's Big Ten Team" slogan that they had earned by purchasing a bunch of billboards.  Neither team plays in Chicago.

Lovie Smith, pictured with the Big Ten East, West, and Conference trophies 
which will one day be united. arranged on their podium deep in the bowels 
of the O'Hare Hilton Conference Room B, and aligned with a Harvest Moon, 
casting a path on a crude map carved into the wall that shows the way to the 
Meineke Car Care Bowl.

The battle to claim Chicago like it was a Holy Roman duchy in the hands of a childless noble about to succumb to a litany of incest defects imagines a marketing and recruiting bonanza.  Both schools court football-mad Chicago fans to fill their empty stadiums and Chicago athletes to bring them to the top of the Big Ten West.

The results, however, remain barren.  Chicago is a great college football city, but only because it shelters so many Midwestern alumni, who cluster in their own bars to watch the games or show up at Ryan Field to complain about it instead of leaving us alone with our tarps and yowling Wildcat sound effects. Chicago's closest thing to a college football team sadly plays in South Bend, Indiana.  Northwestern and Illinois count a total of five players combined from Chicago proper, according to the rosters on their websites.  Neither team has been able to tap into the city's astounding amount of NBA-caliber basketball talent. The Northwestern-Illinois game at Soldier Field appeared to be attended exclusively by the players' families.

Chicago's Big Ten Teams face off for the Hat. Not pictured: Chicago

Far more important than this foolish battle for the attention of an indifferent city is the actual stakes of the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry: the Hat, the greatest prize in college football.  Will this game live up to the bombastic zenith of the Tim Beckman era, complete with his complement of anti-Northwestern apparatus?  Lovie Smith, at the very least, seems interested in trying.

TACKLE YOUR LOVED ONES

College football's metagame makes it eerily fascinating.  The specter of recruiting hangs over the entire sport in a complex, chaotic system: the thinking is that a jersey sponsor may introduce an alternate helmet that trends on social media and gains the attention of an enormous fifteen-year-old who two years later tours the facilities and is interested by the quarter-billion-dollar athletic fitness facility with a waterproof X-Box jacuzzi and also the academics of course let's not forget about those and then somehow signs a letter of intent and years later is leading the team to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl while the rival team sits at home in a grim, potatoless hellscape.

He explained, Goldblumically

Does any of this relentless brand-mongering have any effect on the quality of the team on the field?  I have no idea, but the relentless scheming of tightly-wound megalomaniacs desperately competing for the fickle attention of teenagers in front of their fans, reporters, and the whole entire internet while backed by a chorus of unhinged radio show callers accusing them of every type of possible skulduggery makes it impossible to look away. The sideshow has almost superseded the games.

Let the insane internet accusations and berating of coordinators as inept return.  College football is back. Everywhere but within the municipal boundaries of Chicago.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

MINT CONDITION BYCTOM #1

There's no more sure sign of the impending return of college football than the first dispatches of Northwestern media hype products. In 2010, the Wildcat Department of Athletic Aggrandizement peppered Chicagoland with billboards declaring Dan Persa "Chicago's [Big Ten] Heisman Candidate" and sent weights labeled "Persastrong" to the media.  In 2013, they built a custom Goalpost On Wheels and traveled to regional news outlets threatening to tie reporters to them and assail them with kicked footballs until they agreed to add Jeff Budzien to the Groza Award watch list.  Northwestern promoted the 2014 season with a flurry of pamphlets denouncing unionization.

Other promotions considered included a jeweler's eye labeled 
PersaAccurate and a bracelet that says Persascape that, when put on 
the wrist, summons a group of dangerous persons with themed costumes 
that hunt the ultimate prey: Big Ten beat reporters 

This week, Northwestern announced a campaign promoting superstar linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. as "The Franchise" because of his propensity to license the Anthony Walker Jr. name to enterprising linebackers around the country.  According to Insidenu, they sent selected media members a lunchbox, t-shirt, and custom Anthony Walker comic book that references body clocks and contains the single greatest comic book panel of all time:

Photo by @rodger_sherman

The outsize world of college football should have the heroic exploits of players, coaches, and stodgy commissioners in comic form with an applied photoshop filter aesthetic.  So here is a collection of Big Ten comic panels showing the conference in action outside of Big Ten Network Regional Coverage.  









BYCTOM Big Ten Comics encourages you to send away for the nunchuk starter kits, x-ray specs that allow you to find BTN2 in your TV listings, a Purdue Pete that grows in water into a figure so grotesque that it could be banned by the government at any time, and special crystals from Rosemont, Illinois that, when configured correctly, will reveal the next eight members of the Big Ten.  Please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ballad of the Sloop John Belein



If you are a fan of a Big Ten team, you have no doubt received, alongside ceaseless entreaties for money, e-mails about the Big Ten Alaska Cruise. What kind of depravity and hedonism takes place when the stoutest denizens of the Midwest are allowed to run rampant and talk about fullbacks for days on end? BYCTOM and its parent company Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants' VIL Blogging Network sent one intrepid blogger to find out.  

The fan cruise exists as the logical endpoint to fandom; beyond the websites and message boards, conventions, and newsletters, the fan cruise asks if you can enjoy something so much that you are willing to lock yourself on the inescapable sea with 300 equally deranged people. It was inevitable that the same impulse to gather hundreds of fans of comic books or hair metal or “Bones” or Gronkowski torsos would want to expand to football conferences, where fan enthusiasm is based on drunken, adversarial screaming at each other. And it makes sense that the Big Ten ship goes to Alaska, a colossus plodding its way towards the furthest northern reaches of human civilization.

With nothing but the sea spray at my back, an official reporter’s notebook in a satchel, and the latest blogging apps, I decided to venture forth with an advanced reporter’s technique called “participatory journalism.” This is same approach that led Hunter S. Thompson to start a motorcycle gang and George Plimpton to join the Detroit Lions and shout things like “sport, if you wouldn’t mind hiking the ball my hand is appropriately close your buttocks, ah well met.” What you are about to read-- edited for length, but not clarity-- is my account of a week at sea on the ill-fated Big Ten Cruise.

DAY ONE

The Big Ten Cruise is not actually a Big Ten Cruise. It is a special package on a normal cruise ship. That means there are hundreds of people aboard only realizing now, after seeing Big Ten Ambassador Ron Dayne lowered by crane onto the the ship’s deck, that they have been doomed to endless discussions of sixteen-year-old fullbacks’ 40 times with no possibility of escape.

As a members of the Big Ten Cruise Package, we were welcomed to the ship with a medley of piped-in Big Ten fight songs, handed itineraries (preciously referred to as “syllabi”) of Big Ten events, and greeted by a phalanx of mascots. Herky Hawkeye was there. Willie Wildcat high-fived children. I did not see Purdue Pete, but we have been promised that he will appear intermittently in port windows between fleeting beams of moonlight when we least expect it.



The ship set off with a rousing cacophony of key jangling and a spontaneous bratwurst-mouthed rendition of Zombie Nation. A bar television was tuned, as it would be all week, to the Big Ten Network. As the ship departed, it was airing a documentary called “Crouching to Victory: Big Ten Legend Eric Crouch.”

DAY 2

Part of the Big Ten package features, in keeping with the conference’s reputation as a constellation of elite academic institutions, a series of lectures by onboard Big Ten professors. This morning, cruise-goers can choose from:
  • “‘Head’ of the Class: A Structuralist Reading of Mascotry” from R. Paula Brumaire, Associate Professor of Mascot Semiotics, the Pennsylvania State University. 
  • “March Madness: Sousa as as a Locus of Trombone-Centered Discourse” from H. Fred Monktons, Assistant Professor of Musicology, University of Iowa 
  • “Sixty Minutes of Linebacking So Bonecrunchingly Brutal It Can Only Be Shown in International Waters,” a documentary film
Above decks, the Big Ten fans appear to be integrating well with the rest of the passengers. Without their lanyards and Big Ten apparel, they can roam undetected amongst the other cruise-goers chatting, walking the deck, and scanning the seas for birds and whales. It all seems like normal cruise behavior until a group of seemingly-unaffiliated passengers burst into a melancholy rendition of an alma mater or an unnecessarily aggressive argument about recruits’ ACT scores.

DAY 3

At breakfast, the Big Ten passengers were abuzz about the Verne Lundquist lecture later that afternoon. “It’s gonna be special,” said Bert Johanssen who has brought his wife, Bonnie, and his two children Phil and Walter from Blaine, Minnesota. “We’d always wanted to go to Alaska, and never in my wildest imagination did I believe I could see it with Verne Lundquist.” The family sported matching gold Minnesota t-shirts with Lundquist’s head crudely photoshopped onto the head of Goldy the Golpher. “We’re Verneheads,” he said.

The ship also offers an 11:00AM lecture from Beth Mowins.

The Lundquist lecture was packed wall-to-wall. I managed to get a great seat by telling them I was a journalist and patiently explaining the importance of the Fourth Estate in American society and on this ship. But, before the talk could even begin, the ballroom hosting the lecture erupted into chaos.

A disheveled man charged the stage. He had no Big Ten package lanyard. His heavy beard had been stained by chewing tobacco. A mushroom cloud of white hair was held up by a battered visor with an orange “I” turned into a B with faded magic marker. He pulled some notecards from his nylon jacket.

“Big Ten football,” he said, reading directly from the card. “Well in my house we call it…” he said, trailing off as he desperately rifled through the cards, “Bad Ten football.” A crew member hustled him off stage. The only discernible words he screamed as he was dragged off were “Lincoln hat” repeated over and over.



The big draw in the evening was a special screening of the Werner Herzog film “Grizzly Man” with commentary from Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was not on the ship; he came to us live from a recruiting visit to a go-cart track.

“I admire Treadwell,” Harbaugh said into the microphone on his helmet-mounted camera as he passed a seventeen year-old cornerback. “That area was a prime recruiting area for bears, but he just set up shop like he was supposed to be there. His only problem was GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY,” he shouted, bumping a father and son off the track, “ it was that he didn’t want it enough, and to be honest I think if someone told that German guy how to attack each day with focus and tenacity he wouldn’t fear nature’s callously unfathomable power compared to the futile designs of man.”

Harbaugh skidded across the finish line and moved his helmet cam inches from his face.

“There is no doubt in my mind I would have been accepted into bear society,” Harbaugh said.

DAY 4

The trouble began earlier during the Ultimate All Big Ten tailgate. A sudden shudder and jolt on board sent two guys arguing about whether the bean bag throwing game is called bags or corn hole flying into a Big Ten Network-sponsored Rotel pyramid. I grabbed a guardrail and was able to get out of the way of some grilling equipment that managed to topple over and light a life-size cardboard cutout of Tom Crean on fire, his face enveloped in demonic flames. The ship stopped.

After a few minutes, the captain got on the PA system to tell us that we had some engine trouble. We had intermittent electricity and were not going anywhere for awhile. I waved over a crew member and told him I was an influential blogger and pressed him for the real story. I even used the phrase “deep background” but he was clearly not savvy around the press, and he told me to "scram" so he could “do his job.” That’s a direct quote; he was willing to go on the record.

The Big Ten passengers appear disappointed, but remain steadfastly dedicated to Big Ten entertainment while onboard. That evening, I bumped into a group of lanyard-clad fans still in high spirits. They told me that they had convinced Harold Krusp, a history professor from Wisconsin, to give his “Depression America: The Golden Age of Big Ten Football” talk under a flickering emergency light and they invited me to come by. I apologized and told them that I was a journalist in a crisis situation and needed to gather information. I rooted around my baggage and found what I had desperately hoped I wouldn’t need: a khaki vest with dozens of pockets.

DAY 5

The first few days of the cruise, the ship was filled with chatter about activities and processions of replica Land Grant trophies and Old Oaken Buckets. Now, the tenor of the ship has changed. There are no activities. The passengers spend their time trading gossip and what little snatches of information they can come by.

There’s a divide building between the Big Ten group and the rest of the passengers. The Big Ten fans decided to hold a Big Ten trivia contest after lunch, but without microphones the group continuously yelled Curtis Enis across the room, unable to discern whether that was the question or answer. The session ended when a large group of unaffiliated passengers silently surrounded the trivia contest until one of them stepped forward. “We really need you to stop talking about the Big Ten,” she said.

DAY 6

For a second day, the ship sat idle. Most of the perishable food has spoiled. This morning, I saw a beefy old man turn away heartbroken as deck hands callously tossed a palette of rotten cheese curds overboard. Information remains scarce and unreliable. The crew has been reassuring us that they are doing all they can to repair the ship; the captain’s grim, stubble-ridden face tells us otherwise, and frustrated mechanics occasionally surface from the engine room.

The passengers have become irate. The initial disappointment has given way to a creeping fear that we may be stranded for some time. Around 4:00, I bumped into a group of Michigan fans in a quiet corner hallway near my stateroom in the evening. “I’m concerned about the leadership on this vessel,” one of them told me (he would not tell me his name even though I explained to him the problems with anonymous sources, it's journalism 101). “This crew-- not a Michigan man among them. You can tell from those flashy epaulets.”

The Michigan Men do not appear to be the only ones planning a mutiny. Earlier, I heard a small commotion and followed the noise. The visored man responsible for the diatribe before the Lundquist lecture had gathered a small crowd around him. I was startled to realize that he was former Illinois football coach Tim Beckman. It appeared that he had used his legendary motivational skills to convince the non-Big Ten passengers that the Big Ten contingent has been plotting against them. He held up a life ring.

“I know how those Big Ten people think,” he thundered. “I can get us to land, but you need to trust me.”

“Wait, aren’t you the guy who doesn’t believe in hamstring injuries?” one of the passengers asked.

“I’m the one holding the speaking ring,” Beckman said.

At some point you cannot just be a passive reporter, standing on the sidelines. Some things are bigger than the story. I decided then and there to tell the captain about the multiple plots to take over the ship. As luck would have it, I saw him pacing the deck with a retinue of anxious-looking crew members. I ran up to him to talk, but he told me to get lost and said the next time I tried to talk to him he would use me as a propeller. Little did he know he had fallen for a classic reporters’ trick. “Possible propeller issue,” I wrote in my notebook.




DAY 7

We were all pressed together shoulder-to-shoulder to hear the captain tell us definitively what was going on. I had tried earlier in the day to pressure one of my sources, a crew member who had seen me weeping on a staircase after getting rebuffed for a quote, but he told me that he didn’t understand why I needed to know anything before the other passengers. My lecture on the sanctity of the First Amendment fell on deaf ears. So there I stood, sandwiched between Hal and Carole Mitchell from the Quad cities, straining to hear the captain. That’s when the drums started.

At first, it blended into the clanging and whirring of the futile engine repairs over the past several days, but eventually it broke through with the unmistakable cadence of a Big Ten drum line. It was Beckman, with Big Ten streamers tied into his beard leading a small but desperate-looking band of mutineers towards the bridge. He was carrying a giant rolled up canvas; his followers wore decorative helmet snack bowls on their heads. They banged on plastic goalposts pilfered from the remains of the tailgate. The crowd instinctively parted. I fell in line behind them with no regard for my own personal safety and drew a fresh pen from a vest pocket.

“Captain, I think you should step aside before you send us all to a watery grave,” Beckman said . “This,” he said, shaking his canvas scroll like the Cecil B. Demille Moses, “this will get us to shore.” His supporters fell into a reverent silence as he unrolled it. It was a sheet with a crudely-drawn Big Ten logo with the universal circle-slash “no” symbol drawn over it. He held it aloft.


 
“Hey, you told us you were drawing up a plan to move the ship,” one of his followers said, brandishing his goal post. “That took you, like, seven hours.”

Beckman blankly stared at the faces surrounding him. Even his most ardent followers pointed their goalposts and aimed their pop-a-shot basketballs at him. He scampered away from the crew, grabbed a giant inflatable Lil’ Red mascot, and leapt overboard. Together, with equally maniacal grins, they drifted towards the horizon.

With that, the cruise was over. The captain told us the ship could not continue in its current condition. We would have to be towed to shore. A small but defiant group of Big Ten fans steadfastly clung to the Big Ten experience. All evening, they gathered in a circle, clutching the children, telling tales of past Big Ten glory. “Kunle Patrick tipped the ball right to Sam Simmons. They called it Victory Right,” said one purple-clad man miming a tip drill. “Son,” said another, looking at a group of children, “let me tell you about Ron Zook.” A man in an Iowa shirt walked up to the crowd as they yielded the center of the circle. He looked each of them in the eye, his voice quavering. “Robert Gallery,” he said.

EPILOGUE

The tugboats eventually arrived and pulled us to the closest port in Ketchikan, Alaska. The ship had been running out of food, lost the ability to deal with passengers’’ waste, and had become marred by growing strife between the Big Ten passengers and the rest of the ship. One particularly irate cruise-goer toppled a life-sized talking Gus Johnson bobblehead that could not be stopped from wheezing out a chilling “RISE AND FIRE” death rattle for hours.

It took days for everyone to sort out their travel plans and make their way back to Seattle.

Once in town, I did some extremely journalistic digging on the status of the ship by calling the cruise line’s customer service number. They told me the ship had not been fully repaired in Ketchikan and would be towed back to Seattle. I went down to the port and asked around and, even though no one would answer my questions because I had clearly discovered a conspiracy so diabolical that they would stop at nothing to prevent me from unearthing it, I eventually figured out that the date of the ship’s arrival was posted on a website.

I stood on the pier and waited when it appeared-- first as a shimmering white dot then coming fully into view. A few other Big Ten fans, still clutching their lanyards, still clad head to toe in colorful university apparel, had come by as well. They stood there, half in awe, half in mourning, watching the Big Ten boat limp into port, coated in sewage and stale tortilla chips, still upright, three yards at a time.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The NBA's Pantomime Villainy and the Chicago Bulls


The best parts of Face/Off are when Nicolas Cage, playing a heroic FBI agent who had his face swapped with his sworn enemy using biotechnology and Windows 95, realizes that he has become, to the outside world, his own archnemesis and the only way to cope is to adopt his enemies' criminally insane behaviors, thus becoming what he hates-- and to show this internal emotional conflict by making extremely Nicolas Cage faces.  This also describes what the Chicago Bulls have done this offseason to their bewildered fans.

It was not enough for Gar Forman and John Paxson to send the faces of the team to New York and subject Bulls fans to maniacal Joakim Noah dunk screams in the hated uniform of John Starks and Patrick Ewing.  They also signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, the Bulls' own archnemeses.  Every time Wade grabs at his eye imploring the refs to call a foul or Rondo sourly walks away from Hoiberg in the middle of a timeout and then gets in a tiny scooter and just drives home in the middle of a game, Chicago fans will instinctively start to boo them only to realize they are on the Bulls now and so they are forced to imitate Cage's simultaneous weeping and maniacal leering out of sheer confusion.  

Travolta is clearly doing an impression of a maniacal Cage for most of the movie while Cage 
has to pretend to be a reasonable man forced to impersonate a maniacal Cage so the effect is 
like Being John Malkovich where all the leads are just maniacal Nicolas Cages making this face 
and blowing up vehicles at each other for 138 minutes.

The qualified Per Synergy Sports basketbloggers can explain better than me how Wade and Rondo make no sense for the Bulls.  Neither fits with Hoiberg's pace and space philosophy that exists on a chalkboard somewhere in the bowels of the Advocate Center.  Wade shot less than 16% from three last season; Rondo does not seem willing to shoot under any circumstances and appears to be modeling his game on the time Ricky Davis futilely shot at his own basket to get a triple double.  It has been about two weeks since Gar Forman justified the Rose trade by claiming the Bulls would get younger and more athletic. Now, he has acquired two players in their thirties with a history of knee problems.  But that is immaterial.  The Wade and Rondo moves are disasters because they the are two of the Bulls fans' most hated NBA players and I hate their jerk faces.

Rondo's crimes against the Bulls date back to the epic 2009 Bulls/Celtics playoff series when he threw Kirk Hinrich into a table like a professional wrestler and bludgeoned Brad Miller about the face.  A wobbly, dazed Miller could not hit his free throws.  Compounding the humiliation, the primary video evidence of the hit has been uploaded by a person named "patsfan000026" with NOT FLAGRANT superimposed on the bottom of it in such an obnoxiously-implied Boston accent that my computer has become infected with a virus and screams about Tom Brady being railroaded at random intervals.  Rondo managed to quit on a playoff team in Dallas so egregiously that they pretended he was injured.  His time on the Sacramento Kings, less a basketball organization than a boiling cauldron of insanity, climaxed with an ejection for screaming homophobic slurs at a referee.

The most interesting subplot on the Bulls this season will be the ways that Rondo manages to psychologically break Fred Hoiberg, who coaches with the intensity of a substitute math teacher.  Perhaps Rondo will humiliate Hoiberg in Connect Four in front of the entire team.  Perhaps he will convince Ol' Fred that everyone on the team is growing mustaches in November and then when Hoiberg walks into the advocate center as the only person with a mustache he is greeted by pictures of Ned Flanders plastered to the walls with a legend that says "HOIBERG."  Maybe Rondo will re-edit Hoiberg's game film, switching out the coach's beloved inspirational '80s movie scenes for horrifying Cronenbergian body horror while Hoiberg yells C'MON YOU SAID YOU NEEDED FINAL CUT PRO FOR FILM STUDY at him.

Benny the Bull disdainfully showers Rondo with popcorn when Rondo 
was injured and therefore forced to hurl insults at the Bulls on a regional 
television broadcast

Wade has, as far as I can tell, never used a part of the arena to attack Kirk Hinrich.  Nevertheless, he earned the ire of Bulls fans as the ringleader of the hated Heat.  Wade feuded with the Bulls when they had Ben Gordon and Ben Wallace and he feuded with Derrick Rose before Rose's knees disintegrated like the guy who drank from the wrong Holy Grail.  Wade's sins are more prosaic than Rondo's.  He flops.  He moans at officials so operatically that opponents easily dunk on the next possession because the NBA doesn't allow players to assign ghost players to defend while they are berating Scott Foster.  More than anything, Wade has existed as a very good player on a team that consistently beat the Bulls for more than a decade, the grossest basketball evil that can be committed against a team.

At the very least, the Wade move has backfired on Pat Riley.  Riley, a basketball innovator who invented advanced strategies such as telling Anthony Mason to elbow people and telling Alonzo Mourning to elbow people, has been irritating Bulls fans since the 1980s.  Now Riley has seen his carefully-cultivated Miami family narrative upended by a power play gone awry, which should give him something to think about as he sinks into the hair gel sarcophagus he sleeps in every night.  Miami has cap room, but it will be useless if Riley's hard bargaining tactics scare off potential free agents.  It is at the very least gratifying to imagine Riley striking out with big name free agents and then angrily feeding some flunky to the shark he keeps in his mansion to use as a metaphor for winning.

A threatened Riley instinctively displays his Championship Ring the way a startled lizard 
deploys a skin-fringe or puffs itself up by inflating gaseous sacs

Sports fandom represents, at best, a crude pantomime of emotions for fans.  Players can be gone in an instant, teams removed at the stroke of a pen, and all of the billions of dollars for pyrotechnics and jumbotrons and irritatingly peppy people walking around asking a seven year-old to name their favorite player for a t-shirt and television networks and guys in suits who are paid unfathomable sums of money to scream KEVIN DURANT IN MY OPINION IS NOT MAKING A MAN'S MOVE, KEVIN I AM LOOKING AT YOU NOW AND YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED, CHAGRINED, I AM GOING TO THROW HARD-BOILED EGGS AT YOUR FAMILY KEVIN and absolutely all of it is completely and utterly devoid of meaning.

Stephen A's speech threatening Kevin Durant is the funniest thing that has ever been on television

We can accept that and yet we will turn on a Bulls game to see the sneering face of Dwyane Wade and disgruntled surl-mugging from Rajon Rondo and wonder how this all happened. And when the Bulls play the Knicks next season, against Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, we'll all feel as if we've seen the faces swapped, the tenets of basketball villainy undermined, the United Center filled with doves.  In an entertainment product as insane and capricious as professional sports, perhaps the most reasonable way to cope is to make Nicolas Cage faces and embrace the chaos.



Thursday, June 23, 2016

Derrick Rose's Sad Limp To Basketball Oblivion

You can see it on the grainy videos online.  Tyrus Thomas grabs a rebound, lopes down the court, and feeds a streaking Derrick Rose who two-hand jams it on a hapless Goran Dragic. The Bulls' bench players theatrically pretend to hold themselves back from storming the court while Stacey King admonishes Dragic for trying to block the shot, for futilely exposing himself to posterization, for daring to exist in the same basketball universe as Derrick Rose.


It's the 2015 playoffs.  The Bulls, going toe-to-toe with a Cavs team expected to roll through the Eastern Conference like a monster truck over a pile of broken sedans, give the ball to Rose. Somehow, he gets off an awful, off-balance three and banks it in as the clock expires.  And, as the United Center explodes into rapturous anarchy and his teammates mob him and hold him aloft, Derrick Rose stares out into nothingness, no expression on his face, not even a cool, studied walking away from an explosion in slow-motion like this is a thing that is normal to me, the guy who blows up Apache helicopters full of drugs and counterfeit money and illegal reptiles expression, but almost like he has been disconnected from reality around him.  It is a blank mug.  It was less a catharsis than an exorcism from the unending series of catastrophic knee injuries and comebacks and hot takes and Bulls' front office skulduggery brought about by the deafening scream of 20,000 people who wanted nothing more than to believe in him again.


Derrick Rose's time with the Bulls reads less like a basketball career and more like a litany.  His knees, once a pair of pistons that pinballed him through defenders and powered his circus layups and soaring dunks, exploded into loosely-packed bags of ligaments.  The constant rehabs and battles with the media and a front office filled with Magoo Machiavellis brought an element of melancholy to his game.  Rose never again played only against other basketball teams, but against the ghost of his own self; watching Rose for the past three years was like watching a cash-in reunion tour Derrick Rose on the county fair and riverboat casino circuit.

Chicago's relationship with Derrick Rose came closer to a religious experience than basketball fandom.  Bulls fans became swept up in a cult preaching an endless cycle of Back and Not Back.  Rose's transition layups turned into prophesies.  One day, he would be Back, floating into the United Center in gilded robes, levitating over the hoop, teaching his teammates the Way of the Back, mastering the three point shot, and because this is a religious scenario he would also suddenly be good at defense too and he would vanquish all of the apostates who did not believe he was Back out of the Eastern Conference like so many febrile Karl Malones and then, he would lead the Bulls Back, he would lead the Bulls fans, his disciples of the Way of the Back into Grant Park and the fountain would turn from water into an ethereal light that would flow through him and turn him into Michael Jordan, which is what we all wanted him to be in the first place.

There is no other professional basketball player who could inspire an 
ironic shrine art installation unless there's a guy in the Adriatic League 
who starts an Ancient Order of the Trapezoidal Key

Derrick Rose's constant barrage of injuries (for fuck's sake, he broke his goddamn face last season and then spent months wearing a clear plastic mask that had "I am wearing an overwrought symbol of my transformation into a simulacrum of Derrick Rose" written on it) destroyed the Bulls' hopes of breaking through the Eastern Conference's LeBron hegemony.  Instead, his absences liberated fans from expectations, and the Bulls turned into an enjoyably scrappy outfit of hard-nosed defenders, tiny shoot-first point guards, and Carlos Boozer, who spent four consecutive years refusing to close his mouth for a single second and once got so excited screaming AND ONE that he punched Danny Crawford in the testicles. 

I will remember the horrified expression on the woman's face after witnessing Boozer's 
brutal testicular assault on my deathbed

Now, Rose joins Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Tom Thibodeau, most likely Joakim Noah and possibly Taj Gibson in exile as the front office molds the Bulls into Fred Hoiberg's brand of draft lottery basketball.

Rose leaves the Bulls for the equally languid and dysfunctional New York Knicks.  The Knicks, bereft of draft picks, reliant on the maligned Carmelo Anthony, and owned by a monomaniac obsessed with his corporate retreat blues music, will subject Rose to an even more unforgiving and unhinged basketball media.  He has gone from the Lusitania to the Titanic.  The Bulls will be terrible next year with or without Derrick Rose.  But he takes with him a brief hope for resurrection, for an unstoppable drive and one of those looping layups, when Stacey King half-heartedly warns some hapless bench player about the futility of standing in the way of Derrick Rose and invokes the holy cry of Back, when you can see the MVP Derrick Rose straining to break free from his body sarcophagus.  But Derrick Rose is not back; he will never be back; that is, until the first Knicks game when he comes back, knees and the Good Lord permitting. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Futile, Asinine Task of Determining The Greatest Team of All Time


A championship has returned to Cleveland.  The Oracle Arena, described by the press and the Warriors' ownership as a virtual reality laboratory for the development of New Age basketball by players wearing those ping pong ball motion capture suits, may already lie in smoking ruins.  The Warriors capped off a historical run, won 73 games, and nearly clinched their second straight title. Instead, LeBron James did the one thing more impressive than that by actually winning a Cleveland sports championship.  The effort required a mythical performance; when James somehow outraced every player in the history of organized basketball to impale an Iguodala layup against the backboard, he all but came down from an ancient frieze.  The win capped off the Coming Home chapter for our most narrative athlete, embodied the hopes and dreams of American sports' most loudly martyred fanbase, and vanquished a team considered the greatest ever with an unprecedented comeback.  So let's talk about the Chicago Bulls.

The Chicago Bulls have cast a dunkman-shaped shadow over this NBA season.  The Warriors not only broke the Bulls' wins record, but did so with a freewheeling style utilizing absurdly long jumpshots that directly refuted the theology of 90s basketball.  All season long, the old players made their pilgrimages to television and radio studios to talk about how the Warriors were soft, how magical basketball sprite Stephen Curry would have been drawn and quartered by Antonio and Dale Davis, and how Michael Jordan would have broken into the Warriors' hotel and poisoned them because that is the type of competitor he was and then while they were bent over vomiting they would have been roughed up by Bill Wennington and Dickie Simpkins.  There is nothing a retired basketball player loves more than shitting on current players by threatening them with hypothetical violence.  But as the Warriors demolished all comers, the howling from the veterans of the Pat Riley Wars sounded like what it always had been: the anguished shriek of man against his own mortality and the diminished use of post moves.

Then the Warriors made history as the first team to squander a 3-1 lead in the Finals.  Their effortless shooting ground to a halt against a lineup featuring the mummified remains of Richard Jefferson. Basketblogger punching bag Kyrie Irving outplayed Steph Curry. Draymond Green became the Icarus of penis clobbering.  Their wins record is for naught.

Joe Lacob, the Warriors' swaggering tech-goblin owner made it easy to root 
against them when he said “The great, great venture capitalists who built 
company after company, that’s not an accident. And none of this is an accident, 
either...We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in 
planning, in how we’re going to go about things," embodying the irritating hubris 
of Silicon Valley's aspirational App-Warlords. This feeling will last exactly as long as 
the first appearance of the Cavaliers' swaggering mortgage-goblin Dan Gilbert 
when he tries to take credit for James's unprecedented investment in the civic 
identity of Northeast Ohio even after Gilbert attacked him in the world's dumbest 
Corenlius Vanderbilt letter written in Crayola

As the Warriors closed in on the record, I was surprised by how much I became invested in their failure.  Nothing the Warriors did could rip those banners from the United Center. Nothing they did could take away their six championships.  They could not make Jud Buechler fade from those hideous '90s caricature shirts like a McFly sibling.

Phil Jackson looks like a generic evil businessman, all grace and manners and you and me 
we're not so different speeches until Dolph Lundren threatens his production of 
Cocaine II: The World's Most Potent drug.  Scottie Pippen is about to burst forth from 
someone's chest cavity

My own desire to see the Bulls' 1995-6 season enshrined at the top of an arbitrary hierarchy has no basis in any sort of value system.  I have nothing to offer to the Michael Jordan Take Industrial Complex or manifestos on the superiority of hand checks and apostate illegal defenses.  I only want the team I like to remain garlanded in whatever accolades I can cling to, and one of them is a claim to the nebulous title of the Greatest Team of All Time.

The decision to anoint the Greatest Team of All Time is such a fool's errand that we throw our most foolish hot take jesters at it.  Teams from past generations cannot play each other without folding space-time against itself.  Sports grow and evolve with new strategies and rules and, as movies and television tell us, into inevitable future death sports.  The whole enterprise devolves into hypothetical games of ghosts against ghosts.  It rests on a the deployment of numbers stripped of context and an-almost religious fervor.  There is no Greatest Team of All Time.


For Bulls fans, though, it is all we have.  Twenty years ago, they obliterated all comers, an overpriced sneaker stamping on the forehead of Karl Malone, forever.  Now, they remain, like their nemesis Eastern Conference Teams from the '90s, trapped in irrelevance because of a single dominant player. The same LeBron James who safeguarded the '96 Bulls' claim to Greatest of All Time status has simultaneously ruined any hope the current Bulls have of contending.  Chicago's great hometown hope has been strangled by his own knee ligaments.  They now have fallen into the pits of NBA despair: lottery picks, trade rumors, and a uniquely Bulls tendency to coat all of those things with a thick layer of unnecessary back-biting and soap-opera intrigue.  So forgive me if I forgo reading another article about whether or not Jimmy Butler is a leader to argue about Michael Jordan hand-checking Steph Curry down to mouthpiece and goatee particles.  The Bulls have been organizationally posterized, now only capable of reflecting the greatness of today's champions.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The NFL Draft is a Collective Hallucination

For the past week, the National Football League has taken over Grant Park, the Auditorium Theater, and the surrounding environs for a three-day list-reading spectacle. Now, it has blown town like an indolent carnival, only leaving the indentations from the CHRYSLER DRIVE TO THE ENDZONE LEGAL BRIEF ZONE and the VERIZON 4G LTE ENTERTAINMENTS TENT featuring some hideous corporate simulacrum of a good time. Now, after a fanfare-laden Schedule Announcement, there is little the NFL can do until the Beginning of Minicamps and the inevitable revelation of some hideous football scandal that requires Roger Goodell to grimly sit behind a lectern in front of a gaggle of gravely tweeting reporters.

All of the major American sports leagues have expanded their drafts into spectacle.  Major League Baseball now televises its draft, even though many top prospects will need to be outfitted with cadaver ligaments before they throw a pitch in the big leagues.  The NBA has turned the ordering of lottery picks into a show itself, where general managers cringe as the capricious whims of fate reward their season of tanking with the rights to draft high-upside teenagers who might not know how to play basketball and wispy Europeans harangued by basketball xenophobes.  The NBA draft itself has become a fashion spectacle, far removed from the days when players would dress like bellhops and, during the 1990s, an entire textile's factory worth of fabric hastily cut into the shape of a suit.

Bonzi Wells's NBA career was undone by a massive scandal 
when he was revealed to be three children sitting on each 
other's shoulders

The NFL draft's bloated, grotesque self-importance has become its most entertaining aspect.  Over the course of three days and countless hours of coverage, the draft broadcasts features men in suits discussing some MAC tight end with the gravity of an unfolding missile crisis interspersed with ineptly stage-managed spectacles involving children or the armed forces.  The draft combines the demented square-jawed football authoritarians with the uncanny valley corporate branding strategists who are genuinely excited about product integration in an exciting contest to determine the most irritating type of person on the planet.  The ringmaster is Roger Goodell, the loathsome avatar of swaggering corporate dick-swinging in whose hands a minor rules infraction about football air pressure turned into a months-long legal siege that has generated thousands of pages of legal briefs and tied up the actual United States judicial system.

Roger Goodell reacts to boos like an indignant vice principal while dressed, inexplicably, like a 
secret policeman from a dystopian future movie who works for a shadowy government cabal with 
a name like The Curators

The NFL draft also serves as an annual symposium on stilted language.  Draft analysts, driven mad by the existence of their job, struggle each year to come up with new and increasingly abstract ways of describing players as fast, strong, and skilled, which are the same qualities that football teams have looked for in their players since time immemorial.  Instead, they combine a desperate desire to say something new witbh the requisite QUARTERBACK POSITION IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE dialect that surrounds the sport to convince anyone listening that they are finally suffering the neurological effects of a lingering elementary school dodge ball injury.  This year, analysts decided to, for the first time in the history of English, describe human beings as "sudden."  That nonsensical usage could only appear in an NFL draft broadcast or by an unhinged Dostoevsky translator in one of those scenes where the protagonist is thrown out of a tea reception when everyone becomes incredibly hostile for some reason.

You do not need me to tell you that the NFL draft is tedious, ponderous, and hilariously self-serious.  The entire NFL brand revolves watching enormous men tear each others' ligaments described by a panel of shouting Jack Webbs that pauses only to sell us trucks and boner medicines.  And yet, the biggest moron of any person involved in the NFL draft is me for paying attention to it because Chicago's Big Ten Draft would possibly involve Wildcats.

GODDAMMIT I CAN'T STOP TALKING ABOUT THE STUPID NFL DRAFT

Two Wildcats were chosen in the draft.  Dan Vitale followed in the footsteps of Drake Dunsmore and went to Superback City.  He enters the NFL as a fullback because superback sounds like it is a position that exists only in those fake intramural Harry Potter sports.

Dean Lowry's draft selection video features a man broadcasting from a creepily-preserved Vince Lombardi office mausoleum.  Then, the draft analyst immediately denigrates Lowry as short-armed and possessing the brain pan and skull contours of a rotational player who may lack the alimentiveness of a full-time defensive end.

McSHAY: This fellow's ratio of brow-ridge to frontal cortex indicates such a pronounced 
                       deficieny in the philoquarterbackal instinct that I should look askance at anyone 
                       who drafts him as anything other than a common grout-monger
KIPER: Must improve: skull

Most distressingly, Lowry now plies his trade for the hated Packers.  While I hope for Lowry to have success in the NFL, his victories will be won over the prone body of Jay Cutler.  I don't know how fans of teams with armies of draftees reconcile their divided loyalties between college and pro football other than by yelling roll tide at all football occasions and damning everything else.

The Chicago Bears performed a number of trades to draft a bunch of people I've never heard of based on the work of dozens of scouts and phrenologists.  I'm pretty sure they drafted a linebacker named Kwiatkoski specifically for the benefit of sports radio callers so they can demand he play more because dat guy's hard nosed instead of calling to complain about Jay Cutler or attempting to order Italian beef sandwiches when they mistakenly think they've hit the other number on their speed dial. 

CHICAGO IS THE BASEBALL CAPITAL OF THE UNIVERSE

Chicago is the epicenter of baseball.  The ballyhooed Cubs have lived up to the ballyhooers, storming their way to the top of the NL Central.  Jake Arrieta has continued his rampage from last season with another no-hitter.  He now appears in hitters' dreams to strike them out and terrorize them with fiendish wordplay.  The Cubs have walked and bashed their way to victory after victory, even after the beefy lad Kyle Schwarber tore all of his knee ligaments running in the outfield like a Chuck Jones cartoon character. 

Schwarber flies too close to the sun

Meanwhile, on the South Side, the White Sox have been equally destructive.  The Sox, bolstered by a new infield and nuclear pitching rotation led by enchanted Fantasia broom Chris Sale, have lain waste to the American League.  Last year, a young and exciting Cubs team became the darlings of baseball while a promising Sox team languished.  The Sox have succeeded this year while managing to overcome the all-consumingly bizarre Spring Training saga of Adam LaRoche. LaRoche retired after the Sox attempted to prevent his thirteen year-old son from spending every single moment with the team.  This protest spun into a near-mutiny, with LaRoche's supporters on the team hanging the younger LaRoche's youth-sized jersey in the locker room and describing the precocious lad as team leader.  The whole affair climaxed in a interview with the Elder LaRoche that detailed his work in overseas prostitution sting operations.

Adam LaRoche's season unfolded like the first chapter of a Murakami novel
(Original ambiguously sinister caption from the Chicago Tribune)

It is the sad lot of the White Sox that, through no fault of their own, they remain overwhelmed by the droning media cacophony over the Cubs.  Both teams are historically terrible; after the Versailles Peace Conference, both Chicago teams dedicated themselves to complete baseball ineptitude.  While the Cubs and Red Sox garnered the losing streak sympathy, the White Sox, whose streak eclipsed the Red Sox, attracted far less attention.  When the White Sox finally won a World Series in 2005, the national baseball media treated it like a baseball championship; the Red Sox victory a year earlier was greeted with the cathartic jubilation usually associated with the end of world wars.  Ken Burns's Tenth Inning addendum to his endless baseball documentary included what seemed like an entire feature film's worth of people in book-lined studies rapturously celebrating the Red Sox victory while barely acknowledging the White Sox; this is even though the White Sox won with a stunning series of dominating pitching performances, a dramatic fourteenth-inning game-winning homer from an anonymous bench guy who could have been invented by Ken Burns, and an unhinged maniac manager.  As the Cubs suck up all of the baseball oxygen, the White Sox have quietly matched them in heroics.  Chicago boasts the two best teams in baseball.

That said, there is nothing more likely than the White Sox winning a World Series in a year filled with overwhelming Cubs hype.

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IT IS COMPLETELY INSANE THAT THE NFL DRAFT IS LIKE IT IS

It is possible to trace the evolution of the NFL draft into the ludicrous spectacle it has become. Americans like professional sports, they love football, and even after the league has added national games, invested in football-adjacent products like fantasy pools, and purchased an entire television network to broadcast old football games and football talk and underwear-clad draft prospects running around cones, they still have not managed to exhaust interest in professional football.  The overproduced telecasts with 37 panelists and aggressive animated robots makes sense as well-- football's maximalist pageantry is part of its appeal.  The attachment of advertising and sponsorships to everything but the air surrounding the stadium can be explained because this is America.  

 Yet, while the NFL draft makes sense within the insane context of twenty-first century sports, its grave tone and air of pompous pronouncement remains jarring.  Each pick immediately becomes subject to a tribune of solemn haircuts who sit in judgment of their 40 time, game tape, and phrenological skull construction.  Players may rise and fall based on a few hundredths of a second in a drill or because of "character concerns," an amorphous concept that covers prospects equally tainted by marijuana usage, saying dumb things on social media, and terrorizing people with violence.  None of this bloviating has anything useful to say about the success or failure of any of draftees, but that does not stop anyone from releasing voluminous grade reports made of guesswork and, more recently, tedious value charts that add another layer of abstract analytics talk to people smashing into each other.  

The worst part about the NFL draft, though, was that it did not take place in New York when the Jets moved up to take Christian Hackenberg.