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.


Anonymous said...

"their milquetoast, unhatted prodigal offspring" would this be the timid soul of George Ryan?

Dan, you are hilarious. You have to write a comedic perspective of the British Empire...

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