Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Northwestern Basketball In This, The Best of Possible Worlds

The most unlikely of basketball seasons is coming to its likeliest conclusion. For the past month, Northwestern basketball fans have been hunkered down in bunkers, counting their RPIs, reading Skip Myslenski, and occasionally sending the neighborhood children out for supplies of cigarettes, adding machine tape, and boxes of green visors in order to figure out if this was the year that Northwestern was going to make the NCAA tournament.

Northwestern plans its road to the Sweet

From the improbable upsets against mediocre major conference teams and a 10-1 non-conference record to the victories over Purdue and Illinois, to the crushing loss against Penn State, to say that the season has been a roller-coaster is to reach one too many times into the box of sports cliches that I keep in my sports blog bindle (I also have boxes for run-on sentences, seemingly unending parenthetical asides, and one labeled "gratuitous mustache reference"). Instead, the best comparison for the season is like accidentally walking into a rough dockside tavern and wondering how long it will take between ordering a beer and gaining pool cue as a permanent new appendage or finding an even rougher dock where Journey hang out and make you stare uncomfortably at the work of Steve Perry's periodontist. After long reflection, I've created a handy chart of Northwestern's season in pictorial form (Fig 1A):

Fig. 1A

So it appears that, barring a miraculous run in the Big Ten tournament (the 19th century political equivalent of a Henry Clay presidential run) Northwestern will experience the NCAA Tournament in the traditional way of watching on television until unable to tolerate a specific level of Vitale. Although it still is a bitter feeling to get as close as Northwestern ever has to the NCAAs and falter, fans should celebrate a remarkable season and chance to do some damage in the NIT. With Coble's return and the emergence of Crawford, Shurna, and Mirkovic, Wildcat fans should really look to next year for the inevitable heartbreaking disappointment as somehow things don't click for a team that could go down as Northwestern's best.


The New York Times's Chicago News Co-operative scores again, this time with James Warren's take on Illinois and Chicago corruption. Warren, the former managing editor of the Trib and current publisher of the Reader, among other gigs, has a wonderful perspective on the state's maintenance of what I would describe as Hamburlgar democracy:
“Compare the corruption of an alderman who takes a few thousand dollars from a developer to the corruption of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of the Pakistan nuclear program, going around the world, selling atomic bomb technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran to make a buck,” said Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former Venezuelan trade minister who writes about the ravaging impact of corruption worldwide. “Look at the differing scale of consequences.”
Warren offers a fresh perspective by pointing out that Illinois is a shining beacon of clean government, non-existent graft, and completely justified bulldozings when compared to organizations such as international drug traffickers, Russian robber barons, Somali pirates, and the state of Florida.

Sample posters for Illinois residents hoping to throw an at least
we're not as corrupt as party in their homes or places of business

This article should be seen as a proper throwing of the gauntlet, and I urge residents to vote on the next Illinois governor or Cook County trash commissioner based on whether he or she could top Mobutu, who began all newscasts with an image of him descending from the clouds, probably with a giant canvas sack of celestial plunder to deposit in his Swiss bank account.


Try as they might, no modern politician could pull off graft, chicanery, bribery, and other sordid manipulation of the political system for their own gain with more panache than a nineteenth century Chicago alderman. The cabal of "Gray Wolves" ran Chicago's Levee district in a selfless attempt to reach the Platonic ideal of municipal corruption. So confident were they in their shiftless feudalism that they brazenly adopted nicknames such as "Bathhouse John" and "Hinky Dink" from the Chicago Bureau of Disreputable Nicknames or Potential Harlem Globetrotter Aliases.

Gray Wolves "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and
Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna in their watch-
chain, boater, cigar-chomp pinstripes, not to be
confused with Silver Foxes and their chain-smoke
Kansas flashdance ass-pants

Coughlin and Kenna owned Chicago's First Ward. Bathhouse John, the more flamboyant of the two, made speeches and composed bawdy lyrics for their decadent First Ward Ball thrown at the Chicago coliseum for the variegated criminal types in their constituency. Hinky Dink, meanwhile, tended to his fantastically named tavern called the Workingman's Exchange from whence he ran his innovative booze for votes program targeted at the local hobory. But this article from Time Magazine eulogizing his reign as he chose to forgo reelection in 1942 sums it up far better than I can:
For a nickel The Hink sold schooners as big as buckets to bums, roustabouts, prostitutes. They could always put the bite on him for two bits; he let the bums sleep in the back room. Once in a while he would go back to touch them on the head. He wanted to make sure they were not dead...On election days they voted as Hinky Dink wanted.

Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John ran an area of Chicago known as "The Levee," an area of the city rife with saloons, houses of ill repute, gambling, gangsters, book-makers, back-alley surgeons, trick handshakes, false mustaches, and unprovoked purple nurpling. Along with Johnny Powers of the 19th Ward, they became experts in "boodling," or basically awarding the franchise to operate public utilities to men who had adequately bribed them. In one case, they even invented a company called Ogden Gas in order to force the actual franchise holder to buy up its shares, which is pretty much the municipal corruption version of swashbuckling.

John Coughlin ready for ordinary boodling and preparing for the Odgen Gas

Both Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink never got in much trouble for their showboating, sticky-fingered style of local government. Though their legacy lives on in clout and the old Chicago handshake which is like a regular handshake except that the recipient ends up with either a fistful of cash or nuclear green relish product, their milquetoast, unhatted prodigal offspring lack that Sandburgian swagger that made corruption as much a part of the fabric of old time Chicago as the constant stench of entrails.


With very little left to play for other than an NIT Home Game and some Big Ten Tournament momentum, Northwestern fans are suffering from a tournament hangover tantamount to waking up in the Levee, possibly with a knife as a new appendage in the ribs. On the other hand, the Cubs are preparing to do more lasting damage to Chicago's psyche than more than a century of graft-induced inefficiency by showing up to Spring Training. You can count on BYCTOM to keep you abreast of these and other crucial sporting news items with sporadic updates on nothing in particular.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hoops Interlude

Northwestern is winning Big Ten basketball games, ending the dependable tradition of having postseason dreams in the same state as President Lincoln on his birthday each year. January was a grinding ordeal for Northwestern, but showed the nonconference success was not a fluke with victories over Michigan, Illinois, Purdue, and the fearsome Broncs of UT Pan-American who confuse non-conference opponents by forcing them to spend the first half wondering why there is no second O on their uniforms because even though their team name is apparently a correct variation on the wild horse, it sounds more like an onomatopoeic clown sound effect.

For the first time, Wildcat fans find themselves clinging to the NCAA tournament bubble, that slippery hope of convincing a faceless selection committee that can cement this year as the greatest in modern Northwestern basketball history or consign the squad to the dustbin of the NIT. It is a wonderful feeling to watch Northwestern games with a tournament appearance on the line in every game, instead of the traditional rooting interest of hoping to ruin things for Michigan. At the same time, it may be difficult to cope with new feelings of dread and trepidation at the end of close games.

The NCAA Bubble Experience

January also saw the emergence of Drew Crawford as a bona fide basketball star for Northwestern, who is not only hitting threes, but also capable of slamming in a dunk. As fans not used to dunking, Wikipedia helpfully reminds us that other terms for slam dunk include "jam," "yam,", "flambledamble", "slamalamadingdong", "boom," "bang," "punch," "stuff," "flush," "cram," "spike," "yoke," "thrust," "wizzle-wozzle," "poke," or "throw down."

Dunking legend William Jefferson Clinton demonstrating a
"wizzle-wozzle" on a hapless Mark Jackson. Sentences like those
make me excited for the upcoming day when "According to
Wikipedia" permanently replaces "Webster's Dictionary Defines"
as the standard opening to stilted junior high school debates or f
ive paragraph theme essays


Spring training is edging closer, which means that it is nearly time for Cubs pitchers and catchers to report to Arizona for their pre-failure holding pattern. The Cubs nearly moved to Florida, but managed to extort $84 million from the good people of East Mesa mainly because the new ownership will never move the Cubs from Chicago but felt like pulling off the classic sleazy threat to move unless they get nicer facilities just because they can, much like a feudal landlord exercising his seignorial hunting rights. I like the Cubs staying in Arizona because it keeps the Cactus League rivalry with the White Sox' spring training invite detritus and reinforces Arizona as specifically the territory of the Chicagoland elderly. Unfortunately, the new facilities include a new park which means that there is a chance that the Cubs will no longer play in Hohokam Stadium, an unfathomable loss of a spectacular stadium name.

The movement towards Spring Training also means that is time for more bleating about steroids, set off by Mark McGwire's tepid apology for using performance enhancers and the race for crusty baseball columnists to scour the quarries and call in their corvée labor in order to build the biggest high horse possible, one that can allow them to ride in scraping the very heavens themselves to cast their aspersions at the mortals below cowering in the shadows of their moral certitude. Of course, not all responses are this over-the-top. You can always count on Doug Glanville to put the steroids debacle in terms that BYCTOM readers can understand:

My brother was and is a supporter of the unreal — a huge fan of science fiction’s Godzilla. Thanks to him, when I was growing up I would catch an occasional episode of the TV show where Godzilla would take on Rodan (or some other nemesis) and they would end up in these knock-down, drag-out fights, reaping collateral damage all along the way. Once Godzilla went on his rampage, our eyes fixed on the TV, waiting to see which landmark would end up a pile of rubble. We loved it. And when the May 1998 release date of a remake of “Godzilla” approached, even with the baseball season in high gear I anticipated seeing it in a Philadelphia theater as soon as I could find some down time in between games.

The 1998 Godzilla is best represented by this pastiche of startled


Shifting into unrelated ground, the Chicago News Cooperative (a news organization that is supplying information for the New York Times's expanded Chicago coverage in an apparent attempt to take advantage of the two local newspapers' drift into grotesque parodies of newspapers that David Simon would reject as a bit over the top; I think Hawkman is now a columnist for the Sun-Times) has an interesting article about about Wal-Mart's attempts to expand in the city. The article is mainly notable for the classic Daley snapshot:

Mr. Daley replied with a curt profanity and walked away, according to a source who witnessed the exchange but did not want to be identified for fear of angering the mayor.

Daley is from the Ming the Merciless style of municipal management,
although I'm not sure if Ming would have the gumption to send space
bulldozers to destroy a space port sitting on a prime piece of space-front
property in space

Daley's fear striking manner is not entirely removed from the behavior of Chinese Emperor Yongzheng in the early eighteenth century as described by Jonathan Spence in Treason by the Book. Spence describes the fallout from a treasonous letter to the Governor of Shaanxi-Sichuan urging him to rise up against the Emperor in rebellion, a letter which struck the Governor by surprise as his position depended to a large extent on maintaining the Emperor's favor. To say that Yongzheng's officials cast a wide net in their investigations is a gross understatement; not only did they arrest the family of every suspect, but Yongzheng also went after a scholar who thought he could escape his iron fist by dying well before Yongzheng became Emperor. Instead, Yongzheng had to settle for desecrating his grave, punishing his elderly descendants, and denouncing his scholarly works.

Probably the most remarkable part of the whole case was the flimsiness of the plot. The entire letter was the work of a single man, Zeng Jing, who appeared to be a cranky old man without the benefit of access to the local editorial pages to vent his frustration with the government, so he took the next logical step of sending a letter to the military governor of a far-off province imploring him to lead a revolt. Zeng Jing, in fact, was such a minimal threat to the Government that the Emperor himself defended him against the rest of the court and scholars, corresponding with him in a series of letters in which Zeng Jing learns the error of his ways. Yet the government, in a remarkable demonstration of efficiency, sought to track down every person Zeng Jing encountered who may have grumbled about the Emperor, implicating butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers who were as likely to participate in rebellions as an Illinois gubernatorial candidate is to declare him or herself a close associate of Governor Blagojevic or any other number of corrupt former Illinois governors.

Treason by the book shows the investigative process as remarkably efficient, as government agents covered vast swaths of China and hunted down individuals based on the flimsiest descriptions. At the same time, it reveals a fairly paranoid Emperor, not only hell-bent on investigating the harmlessly disgruntled, but attempting to fend off insult poems from long-dead scholars whose interpretations of Confucius may have posed some tortuously-constructed slight to Qing authority.

Emperor Yongzheng was sometimes depicted by court painter as a
French aristocrat and sometimes as a French aristocrat who has
clearly had enough bullshit from that smug-looking tiger


The Wildcats can ill afford losses against this part of their Big Ten schedule. Though they got off to a good start with the win over Michigan, they'll have to flambledamble their way through Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota in order to keep the dream alive. And with the basketball team poised to join the football team in the postseason, it is a clear sign that Northwestern can put sporting success as a feather in the cap for Northwestern alumni who before were forced to tout the university's astounding record in turning out failed presidential candidates.