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.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Chicago Cubs Will Not Win the World Series


A storm cloud has appeared over major league baseball, as sure a mark of impending doom as the sport can muster: the Chicago Cubs are overwhelming favorites to win the 2016 World Series.  Fortified by lucrative tanking, using the Ricketts family's war chest to bring in free agents, and riding an improbable Cardinal-vanquishing playoff run to last year's National League Championship Series, this could be The Year.  And by invoking The Year and putting together one of baseball's best teams on paper, the Cubs have merely summoned the Four Goat-men of the Apocalypse: Ligament injuries, Player Regression, Cardinals Bullshit, and The Entire History of the Chicago Cubs Since The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

Baseball has long overthrown the anti-intellectual chewing tobacco luddism of its past.  Now it is the purview of lawnmower men who sit in their reconstructed mother's basement front offices.  This is an advance.  It took decades to convince the Tim McCarvers of the world that players who make fewer outs are more valuable than players who knock the ball in play and reach safely discounting the times they walked to first base and ignoring sacrifice bunts and flies except in certain situations where they are not sacrificial enough as determined by a person who has seen the play once from a hole in the scoreboard which was good enough to beat the forces of the Kaiser, damn you.  Now, baseball executives become implicated in high-tech hacking scandals involving typing "Eckstein123" into a terminal, shouting "I'm in," and mining valuable baseball data to their own twisted ends.

Cardinals executive Christopher Correa prepares to infiltrate the Astros' 
intricate computer network

Baseball analytics scoffs at the type of things you will read in this blog post because they are unscientific hokum based on recency bias, coincidence, and full-blown delusional pessimism.  Every season is a unique event; these Cubs have nothing in common with the century of failed Cub teams except their uniforms, Wrigley Field, and the same legions of demented drunken mustaches nasally honking about the traffic on the Dan Ryan.  At the same time, it seems like the most probable route to a Cubs victory would not involve heavy preseason expectations inspiring myriad panics during a 162-game season and one of the most fraught playoff systems in professional sports.  The Cubs gave us the most delightfully unexpected seasons last year; this season will play out like a Blimp of Damocles hovering over the stadium.

THE CUBS ARE INVETERATE BASEBALL MURDERERS

Theo Epstein dismantled the Cubs.  They lost bunches of games.  They flipped any remotely competent player for prospects and arcane spoils like international bonus slot money and sandwich picks.  This garbage team showed up in last place filled with a bunch of rail-hopping barnstormers one beard away from the House of David and this plan, to the detriment to all that is fun in professional sports, worked.  The fruits of the Cubs' drafts, trades, and forays into the Sydney Greenstreet world of international free agency came up last year and they can sock baseballs to Mars.

The Cubs arrived a year ahead of schedule.  Addison Russell, the slick-gloved shortstop, appeared to replace an injured Tommy LaStella.  Kris Bryant, the most ballyhooed Cubs prospect since Mark Prior, appeared amid a flourish of union grievances.  Kyle Schwarber debuted in June and took his place as the prototypical stump-shaped lefty slugger, awing spectators with his power to smash baseballs into the stratosphere and his endearingly bumbling attempts to do anything else related to baseball.  Javier Baez and Jorge Soler spent most of the season injured and ineffective only reappear in the postseason as the revolutionary vanguard against Cardinal hegemony.


The Cubs have nevertheless made some sweeping changes.  They traded the enigmatic Starlin Castro to the Yankees in exchange for reliever Adam Warren.  Castro spent his entire career as Cubs fans' alternating symbol of hope and scapegoat for despair.  During that time, Castro lost.  He lost as the only cornerstone player while the journeymen and organizational filler around him disintegrated into trades, designations for assignment, and far-flung baseball leagues around the world.  The capricious whims of BABIP guided his success: in the years when his balls found holes in the defense he was an All-Star; when they did not he ranked as one of the worst players in all of baseball.  He never acquitted himself well to short, accumulating a staggering array of ludicrous errors comparable to the beer league softball player who appears in jeans, immediately in over his head.

Kyle Hendricks's screams of "Starlin, Starlin STARLIN" while an oblivious Castro castigates
 himself for an error fall upon deaf ears.  It is too late

By the middle of the season, Castro found himself on the bench.  Then, Maddon moved him to second.  Something switched.  Castro became one of the Cubs' best hitters in September.  Beat writers filled column inches about the effect of his change of position and approach.  Cubs fans cheered him, bolstered by his walkup music.  Now, after years as the face of some of the shittiest teams in the Cubs' woebegone history, Castro is out.  He was never a Theo Epstein guy.  His mercurial bat did not fit with the Cubs' patience-strikeouts-and-dingers regimen.  He has a chance to start over with as a change-of-scenery castoff in the one media market less forgiving than Chicago.  This is how baseball works in the twenty-first century.

The Cubs replaced him with a bonafide World Series champion.  Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist plays nearly every position, switch hits, gets on base, has a little pop, and is basically pretty good at every facet of baseball.  He has two main drawbacks: at 34, those skills may begin to diminish and Chicago authorities remain concerned about an outbreak of Zobrism in North Side neighborhoods as Zobrists menace the city with their occult obsession with wispy beards and advanced fielding metrics.

The Cubs raided longtime nemesis St. Louis for key contributors.  Pitcher John Lackey, last seen screaming at a baseball after giving up a demoralizing NLDS hit to Jason Hammel, has vaulted over the Mississippi River.  Lackey, a grizzled 37 year-old, hopes to add stability to the Cubs' rotation after a surprisingly fine season for the Cards.  More importantly, the Cubs absconded with "Trader J" Jason Heyward.  Heyward came over to the Cardinals as a one-year rental from the Braves then rejected their offer to join the Cubs in one of the finest days in the history of sports internet.  Heyward initially projected as the Cubs' center fielder.  He would replace Dexter Fowler, who had left the Cubs as a free agent and agreed to sign with the Orioles.  Instead, Fowler spurned them and appeared out of nowhere in Cubs camp.  The Cubs' offseason was essentially an opera featuring the aria "Trader: The Homonym of Sports Perfidy."

THE CUBS WERE BETTER AT PITCHING THAN HITTING LAST YEAR

The Cubs brought in Jon Lester in for $155 million.  You can recite that number by heart because "they paid $155 million for a guy who can't throw to first?" became appended to his name, like an honorary title for a medieval king.  Lester is a fine pitcher and a comical disaster in everything else relating to baseball.  In his first appearance, a nationally-televised season-opening rivalry game, Lester's inability to throw to first base became as evident to fans as Wrigley Field's inability to accommodate their urine.  He cannot hit, his fielding remains suspect, and he demands the services of catcher David Ross, whose batting average is "he calls a good game out there."  Yet, by the end of the season, Lester scraped out a hit.  He laid down some competent bunts.  He hit a home run in spring training to a pitcher who may or may not have been a Cubs intern in disguise.

Lester may have been the big story in camp last year, but he quickly became overshadowed by Jake Arrieta's unworldly Cy Young season.  Arrieta, acquired in a scrap-heap deal with the repeatedly victimized Baltimore Orioles, turned himself into a better pitcher with the Cubs.  Then, in the second half of the season, he became Death Incarnate.  No one scored off Arrieta.  He gained the ability to control the ball with his mind.  He threw a no-hitter then changed into mustache-themed footie pajamas.  He sparked a donnybrook in the Wild Card playoff game when he hit two Pirates, took one in the buttocks, and started a bench-clearing that got out of control enough for Pirates' first baseman Sean Rodriguez to pummel a Gatorade cooler with a Zambranoan fury.  It was the greatest half a season since the deadball era. 

Rodriguez plans revenge in this year's Gatorade Kumite

The Cubs rode Lester, Arrieta, and a host of reclamation projects and junkballers to the third-best ERA in the majors.  The bullpen contributed; Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon formed a dependable late-game trio, and the Cubs turned a conveyor belt of scrap-heap starters like Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, and archery mime Fernando Rodney into a shockingly effective unit.  They kept most of it together, adding extra arms like Adam Warren and Rex Brothers, the King of All Brothers.  There is, however, nothing more volatile than a major league pitching staff.  Arm injuries can claim anyone at any time, aces will turn to meatball artists with no warning, pitchers will move in and out of the lineup at seemingly-random intervals.  The Cubs' bullpen will look shockingly different by the end of the season.  Let us hope that Arrieta, Lester, and Lackey remain in place.

LOOK UPON THIS MIGHTY TEAM AND DESPAIR

There are several rational reasons why the Cubs will not win the World Series.  For one, the baseball season is endless and unpredictable.  Players get hurt, players come out of nowhere, great players play like absolute dogshit, relief pitching is essentially determined by oracle bones, players change teams, BABIP commands the game like a vengeful god, the banishment of a thirteen-year-old bat boy causes widespread locker room revolt, the playoffs are a completely random confluence of baseball events.  Yet, this is not the place for rational thoughts.  This is a place for exalted Cubs miserablism unbound by the physical laws of the universe.

The Cubs are not cursed by a disgruntled goat-owner or vengeful baseball spirits.  They are, however, confounded by very real pressure fueled by a century of futility, where winning a dumb baseball trophy has acquired life-and-death stakes as their title drought has seen generations of fans to the grave.  The Cubs' identity is wrapped up in futility; every playoff run drags with it the combined weight of previous failure amplified by media into a cacophony.  A hypothetical Cubs World Series appearance would require a three-hour special to get in the full litany of Cubs' ineptitude.

BUCK: YOU'RE WATCHING THE WORLD SERIES ON FOX. I'M JOE BARTMAN, 
                 WITH MY CO-HOST WILLIAM GOATS
GOAT: EHHH
BUCK: 1908

The Cubs at least seem aware of this.  Joe Maddon's slogan for the season is "Embrace the Target," which sounds either like a stealthy conduit for branded content or an extremely Dolph Lundgren direct-to-VHS movie from the mid-90s.  Maddon has attempted to ameliorate the pressure on the Cubs by turning Spring Training into a literal circus involving clowns, mimes, a shredding guitar player accompanying the sound system, and tiny baby cubs.

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears in Cubs Spring .
Training, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only 
the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as 
a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored 
interest in food

The Cubs still play in a thunderdome division against the Pirates and the Cardinals. You may think the Cubs have weakened the Cardinals by stealing two of their best players from last season, but that is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Cardinals work. There is no Cardinals team more dangerous than one that has increased access to scrappy call-ups that you've never heard of. As we speak, Cardinals scientists have altered Eckstein DNA to make a ballplayer smaller, weaker, and more gritty in a reverse Captain America process to create a feeble toddler whose sole MLB hit will be a walkoff against the Cubs. 

 And there is no way to dabble in baseball mysticism without mentioning the San Francisco Giants. Since 2010, they alternated World Series victories with playoff absences. By their third championship in 2014, the Giants' Even Year Bullshit has been canonized in baseball lore. The Giants signed star pitcher Johnny Cueto. But, in a move of greater concern for the Cubs, they have also signed former Cub Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija's value remains unknown; he followed an All-Star half-season for the Cubs with a dismal season for the White Sox. Regardless of how Samardzija pitches, he is destined for a high-leverage start against the Cubs late in the season or the playoffs where he shuts them down as written in the Scrolls of Hypothetical Baseball Misery. 

 Baseball's playoffs are lightning rods for fluky horseshit. The Royals won the World Series partly by turning themselves into an engine of chaos, slapping the ball all over the field and daring the Mets not to do the single dumbest thing possible at any given time, and the strategy worked. Should the Cubs make the playoffs, they could avoid insane pratfalls. Or they could well fall victim to a gaffe currently outside of the realm of baseball possibility by running the bases backwards or having a ball ricochet off another ball in the bullpen causing havoc as multiple balls appear on the field or somehow allowing every fielder to simultaneously collide, their I got it cries lost to a howling October wind. It is entirely possible that this is The Year. I hope it is. But there is nothing more Cubs than squandering this loaded, young squad into another century of heartbreak and despair. 

 Rejoice! Baseball is back.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Netflix Sports Hagiography: Nash (2013)

In retrospect, it is incredible how much crap managed to fill up video stores.  The VHS cassette sustained ubiquity for about 15 years, and during that time approximately two zillion forgettable movies moldered on local outlets' shelves.  Local video rental places, before they were driven out of business by Blockbuster locations sporting 40 copies of whatever Val Kilmer action movie came off the truck that week, offered new releases, old classics, and whatever junk the owners could get hold of: forgotten bombs, little-known arthouse films, fifty minutes of Ernest commercials called The Ernest Film Festival which I once rented on VHS and now some person has put on youtube.

Somewhere, there is a dark, unreleased direct-to-video Ernest movie where Vern and the authorities 
finally find out wha' he mean and it is unspeakable

Streaming services are these new video stores.  Alongside well-known films and television shows, there exists a seamy underworld of filmed entertainment on the remainder pile-- crappy movies relegated to the dustbin internet, straight-to-dvd stoner comedies no doubt acquired as the televisual equivalent of players to be named later in a byzantine rights deal, reality television shows about either trucks or people slapping each other, and sports documentaries.  There are countless sports documentaries on Netflix alone outside prestige brands like ESPN's 30 for 30 series, and it is impossible to tell if any of them are decent or 90 minutes of a person alternating exercise and talking into a go-pro camera.

The motley menagerie of streaming sports films includes the sports hagiography.  These films are soft-focus biopics of current stars.  They tell the story of an athlete's brand and how that brand overcame obstacles to become good at sports and heroically inform the populace about insurance and cell phone plans.  Some of these films are well-made and straightforward.  Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot, for example, focuses on Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki and his unconventional training regimen with trainer Holger Gerschwinder.  It is basically a feature-length Michael Lewis story.  The most interesting thing about the film is that it is German and therefore requires Mavs GM Donnie Nelson to explain the concept of the NBA draft.

Nash is a sports hagiography with more ambition.  It profiles Steve Nash the basketball star, Steve Nash the philanthropist, Steve Nash the filmmaker, Steve Nash the Renaissance man and in doing so becomes at times indistinguishable in tone from a multi-level marketing scheme.


Nash boasts a star-studded list of talking-head interviews that includes basketball figures, celebrities, and the literal sitting president of the United States. 


The film comes to life after an endless flourish of production company logos and throws a whole lot of Steve Nash at the viewer: a Steve Nash press conference about staying on the suns, an arty Steve Nash montage, some encouraging words from Ron Howard, Owen Wilson, and President Obama, and a Nietzsche quote.


Then Nash, with his gravelly Will Arnett voice, tells the story of Sisyphus over an animated stick figure.


Nash contains multitudes.  There are at least two or three sports movies stacked within the film like matryoshka dolls.  The traditional Steve Nash origin story unfolds to chart his improbable rise from a slight, obscure Canadian to improbable NBA stardom.  The film covers his bitter divorce from the Dallas Mavericks.   Nash's first scene takes place at a press conference announcing his decision to stay with the Phoenix suns and then picks up on the thread some 45 minutes later.  It is only after the hobnobbing with Ron Howard, the riding of skateboards, and the discussion of digital marketing that the music swells and we find ourselves in the 2010 NBA playoffs.  Somewhere in between, Nash himself narrates a segment about him lighting the Olympic Torch and playing in the All-Star game in the style of a reality TV show before the conceit is mercifully dropped.  The movie ends with what appears to be a hastily-inserted coda detailing his move to the Lakers; the credits roll before he succumbs to injury, becomes a scapegoat for an underachieving team, and is subjected to an entire season of Dwight Howard who I like to imagine spent several days following him around yelling Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve before making a Dwight Howard face and collapsing into a fit of giggles alongside a paid entourage that laughs alongside him, its members shoving each other in fits of simulated mirth.

The rest of the film is devoted to Nash's manifold interests.  Numerous talking heads note that Steve Nash dislikes celebrity, despite "celebrity" appearing on the film's opening word cluster of Steve Nash traits in a movie devoted entirely to Steve Nash.  The film devotes large amounts of time to his nobler efforts like his global philanthropy and outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.  They appear alongside his efforts to break into filmmaking and extremely 2010 digital marketing that promises to give clients a presence on Flickr.  The two occasionally make odd juxtapositions:



More than anything, Nash reaches for arthouse sophistication through sheer visual spectacle.  As it careens from topic to topic, each transition requires an overwrought time-lapse montage set to post-rock music.  How, for example, are viewers supposed to understand that Nash is in New York without seeing commuters blur through Grand Central Station or understand he is in Washington without a dramatic dutch-angle view of the Lincoln Memorial leading into a Barack Obama talking head helpfully chyroned "Barack Obama: President of the United States."  This isn't just a Nash problem; the grammar of helicopter shot and time-lapse transition is so deeply embedded in documentary films and reality television that I'm surprised that airports don't feature large screens with them so people can understand they've moved to another location; oh I'm in Los Angeles now, the city with the slowly tracking palm trees and the time-lapse cars whirring around the freeways in red streaks. 

Nash is disjointed; its scenes appear to have been assembled like a magazine cut-out murder threat.  The addition of the Lakers coda suggests that the film sat idle for some years while acquiring production company logos.  My theory is that the actual Nash-related parts took a few weeks to film and then the directors spent the next several years capturing time-lapse train station footage, rare shots of the Hollywood sign to convey the concept of "Los Angeles," and hours of bucket drumming to sprinkle throughout.

Steve Nash played enjoyable basketball.  He has always come across as unusually thoughtful and self-aware, not only in this film but in the Jack McCallum Seven Seconds or Less book or in his melancholy comeback film that turned into an elegy for his career.  Nash offers a portrait of him beyond his NBA feats as a complex, thoughtful, human being while at the same time offering complex, thoughtful, and human as a brand in its own right.  Of course, it is hard to tell exactly what this movie is driving at beyond the fact that some time-lapse enthusiasts got a lot of access to Steve Nash, Ron Howard, Barrack Obama, Kobe Bryant, The Guy from Entourage, and not Mark Cuban and managed to pour it all into Netflix like molten steel to be forged into a forgettable on-demand sports media entertainment product.  As the philosopher Steve Nash once narrated, you can't always get that rock up the hill.

Netflix Sports Hagiography is part of an occasional series of on-demand sports movie reviews that seem like a good idea but let's face it I probably will do like one more and then it will fall by the wayside.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Requiem For The NIT Berth: An Extremely Northwestern Blog Post

There is no more Northwestern basketball.  The Wildcats compiled their greatest regular-season record in school history with twenty wins.  That record, bolstered by a string of non-conference victories against school with programs so woeful that they host workshops on getting dunked on and attempting to stay in a defensive stance while being showered in buckets of glitter, combined with an inability to score major upsets in Big Ten play has left Northwestern out of the NCAA tournament and the NIT.

While watching Northwestern in action on television this year, you may have heard announcers mention that the Wildcat men's team has never appeared in the NCAA tournament.  I've spent many long hours at the university archives researching this and it turns out to be true.  We can look forward to reading the "Northwestern Continues to Have Not Made Tournament" articles in local publications originally written in 1955 by a person who is no longer alive.
 
The original Northwestern has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament 
article was originally printed next to an ad for teething cigarettes

Northwestern's season has ended.  The school will not play in the CBI, the Vegas 16, nor any other downmarket basketball tournament taking place in a ship's hull or in the background of a Street Fighter video game.  Northwestern will also not form a swing band called Mr. Cat and the Vegas Sixteen to barnstorm across the county fairs and pomade sales conventions.

MICHIGAN, I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF THESE GUYS

NIT bracketologists are like hazmat suits or Jeff Goldblum characters in a science fiction movie: you only need them when things have already gone disastrously wrong.  After a tough loss to Michigan on February 24 after leading for most of the game, the path to the NIT was clear: win out and steal a Big Ten tournament game or spend Selection Sunday researching the various Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Dune Buggy Decathlon and College Basketball Tournaments.  Northwestern obliged.  They obliterated Rutgers in front of a packed Welsh-Ryan arena filled with Wildcat fans braying for blood against a team so profoundly hopeless that it was possible for Northwestern fans to bray for blood against them.  They dispatched Penn State and Nebraska.  And they set themselves up against Michigan in a do-or-die struggle for an NIT tournament berth, this is a sentence that can only exist on a Northwestern basketball blog.

The Big Ten Tournament crushes Northwestern.  Northwestern has never won more than one game.  In 2012, when the 'Cats were about as close as they have been to tourney qualification in recent memory, they fell in overtime to Minnesota as a trap door opened in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse and immediately deposited them in the NIT.  This year, an NIT berth itself was potentially on the line; it was not for a chance to shed the weight of an eternity of basketball ineptitude but would at least ease the pain of putting up the school's best record in history only to fail to qualify for the postseason.

They came so close.  Michigan pummeled the Wildcats in the opening minutes, seemingly unable to miss.  But, Northwestern hung around within striking distance.  In the second half, Northwestern came back.  Alex Olah and Tre Demps, playing in what we now know was their final game, bravely battled to subject America to more Northwestern basketball.  Olah drilled a three with 17 seconds left.  Then, with Michigan ahead two in the final seconds, he put up the most memorable shot in his career.
It was not quite enough.  With six-tenths of a second left in overtime, Nathan Taphorn's shot fell short and the Wildcats went home, dejected.  Collins spent much of the end of the game apoplectic at a blatant missed travel.  He accused the officials of favoring Michigan as a sports brand.  Tre Demps fit officiating into the broader spectrum of American injustice:
Tre Demps, who scored 21 points on 8-for-21 shooting and played all 45 minutes, put it more boldly.
Speaking to the Tribune and one other reporter, the fifth-year senior said: "There's this thing called politics. They want the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. That's just the reality. You have to stand up and keep fighting. Eventually this program will get to a place where we get those benefit calls.
"That's the reality of the world we live in, in all aspects ... basketball, economics, race. You can't blame the basketball world because that's the way the world works, period."
I am hesitant to dismiss Collins's insinuations of a vast officiating conspiracy against Northwestern because it is incredibly funny; imagine Jim Delany meeting with a cabal of Big Ten referees in the ancient Society of the Inconsistent Whistle.  It is far more likely that the Wildcats, like all college sports teams, are subject to universally crappy college sports officiating. Northwestern like a target because any win against a decent team involves a tense, close game where missed calls are brought into sharp relief during the games' traditional 35 minute foul and timeout-riddled denouement.  

But let's not delude ourselves, that Michigan guy took like 45 steps are you 
kidding me

AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE UNFOLDS IN WORCESTER

Northwestern's big game against Michigan took place in the shadow of Holy Cross's triumph.  The Crusaders, who managed only ten wins the entire season, qualified for the NCAA Tournament with a miracle run through the Patriot League Tournament.  Holy Cross is led by Bill Carmody, fired by Northwestern for failing to bring Northwestern to the Dance.  Carmody had used the Princeton offense and 1-3-1 zone defense to get the 'Cats to four consecutive NIT berths and the edge of the NCAA bubble.  With the same purple and white color scheme, each Holy Cross tournament game is like watching Don Draper's wheel speech, every slide a melancholy backcut or sourfaced Carmody grimace.

It is a small tragedy that Carmody could never get Northwestern into the Tournament because his teams were gleefully odd.  They were, especially in the early years, excruciating to watch, grinding all 35 seconds off the shot clock and scoring fewer points than the football team.  He sent against the Big Ten bizarre squads of mismatched basketball parts: a 6'2" guard that led the team in rebounding, a United Nations of 6'8" guys who could shoot, a lanky scoring machine with a shooting motion modeled on a malfunctioning oil derrick, a guy named "Juice."  Not only did Northwestern often seem like it did not belong in the Big Ten because of a lack of NBA players and behemoth big men, the Carmody teams seemed like they played an entirely different sport, like a handball team that somehow found itself in Assembly Hall.

Moreover, Carmody had the right demeanor.  He coached with the fatalism of a man who, in the back of his mind, realized the Sisyphean futility of Northwestern's quest to qualify for the NCAA tournament.  You half expected him to finish a tirade to a referee by yelling "ah, the hell with it" and then collapse into an easy chair at the end of the bench before realizing it was time to start exhorting the team to backcut again.
 
Carmody triumphantly brings his "will you just ah dammit" coaching 
style to bear against Lehigh in the Patriot League Tournament 
championship game

Holy Cross's unlikely run to the Tournament coincides with the last vestiges of the Carmody era at Northwestern.  Olah and Demps, who played for Carmody, have finished their Northwestern careers (Sanjay Lumpkin, a Carmody recruit, took a medical redshirt during Carmody's final year and remains on the roster).  Since then, Northwestern has new uniforms, a new court (after flirting with a purple court design that would have turned Welsh-Ryan arena into the site of a Willy Wonka factory disaster), and a new offensive scheme.  The only thing that has not changed is the lack of appearances in the NCAA tournament, a fate that dooms every Northwestern basketball team to an endless cycle of heartbreak regardless of player, coach, scheme, or venue as we all rot away on our bodies unable to watch the 'Cats even crack the bullshit play-in games that we are all pretending are part of the tournament.
 This is a Werner Herzog sentence

THE GREATEST RIVALRY IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Greatest Rivalry in College Football is heating up.  New Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman wasted no time dispatching Bill Cubit not even a single game into his newly-signed two-year extension.  Cubit never seemed to have the full endorsement of the university; his extension seemed designed to relieve the athletic department of the burden of conducting an actual search.  Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk described the Cubit contract as unlikely to "put a dagger in the heart of the program," a turn of phrase that sounds like it was crafted in a committee meeting by torchlight in a windswept Champaign-area castle.  It invited intrigue.  Sure enough, the only dagger in Illinois's program was quickly embedded in Cubit's back.

Fittingly, Cubit's last act as Illinois coach was to remove a Hat

Cubit's ouster was not the act of a new athletic director feeling his oats, but a designed coup.  Whitman, quickly enough to suggest behind-the-scenes machinations, replaced him with NFL veteran Lovie Smith, late of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Smith, whose greatest football accomplishments include taking the Bears to a Super Bowl and unleashing Kyle Orton upon the world, hopes to bring the Illini back to relevance and stem the unrest generated by three years under Tim Beckman's football performance artistry.  More importantly, Smith offers a new chapter in the eternal quest for Lincoln's Hat, the greatest spectacle in amateur athletics.

Josh Whitman heralds Smith as a transformational hire; that is why he broke out the color
printer

Smith will have an enormous impact on the Hat rivalry.  Just think of the three Illini head football coaches from the past nine months on a sliding scale of dignity: Lovie, calmly repeating the "Rex Grossman is our quarterback" mantra in the face of triple-coverage interceptions; Cubit, an avuncular man who probably refers to pancakes as flapjacks; and Tim Beckman, who has spent the last four months trying to get his head freed from a stairway railing.  Smith also represents a direct shot at Northwestern's undisputed claim as Chicago's Big Ten Team by bringing in a successful and respected coach from a team that people in Chicago actually care about.  The last time the Illini hired a former Bears coach, Ron Turner led them to a Big Ten championship. No matter what Illinois does, though, Northwestern has an unstoppable plan to maintain its reign as Chicago's Big Ten team by continuing to buy those billboards.

The Smith signing has redefined the rivalry.  Lovie Smith will never be able to top the operatic heights of the Beck Man era.  I like Smith and enjoyed his time with the Bears.  I want to see the man succeed despite the instinctive need to protect the Hat at all costs.  With Smith in charge, the Beckman era will retreat further into memory.  Though it has somehow been less than a year since the Beck Man stalked the sidelines, he already seems like a surreal collective delusion-- it seems almost impossible that an unhinged, incompetent maniac who dedicated himself to destroying an equally moribund program with the zeal of a parody comic book villain undone by a refusal to believe in hamstring injuries actually existed.  The only threat to Smith is the possibility that the Hat exudes some sort of power over Illinois coaches causing them to go insane like the Treasure of Sierra Madre until he succumbs to his hat-greed and incurs a sideline penalty.

The most indelible image of the Treasure of Sierra Madre is a gold-crazed 
Bogart referring to everyone as "mugs"

Lovie Smith is great coach and an encouraging hire for the embattled Illini.  I hope he can bring Illinois out of program's malaise brought about by turmoil and literally allowing Tim Beckman to be in charge of things for an extended period of time.  But that does not change anything.  The stakes for the Hat remain the highest in college football and Smith will discover that on Big Ten Network regional action.