Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Chicago Bulls are a Wailing Pit of Despair

The Chicago Bulls have nothing at stake this season and yet they remain the most infuriating team in basketball outside Sacramento.  They had virtually no chance of contending for a title this season; LeBron James cruelly lords over the Eastern Conference like a surly Prohibition-era bouncer who no longer recognizes the password "Derrick Rose," and the Western Conference superpowers loom on the horizon like mythical creatures from medieval map. But they have had reasons to hope for a good season.  Jimmy Butler has improbably blossomed into an All-Star.  After years in the wilderness, Pau Gasol has become a stalwart.  Yet, with all of this good fortune, the Bulls remain wracked by injuries, haunted by the ghost of a spurned coach, sunk into the fringes of playoff contention, and constantly mired in a never-ending saga of ludicrous intrigue that has made following this team an exhausting slog.

The Bulls are a professional basketball team that pays millions of dollars to find tall people to violently slam a basketball into a hoop more often than the other team of tall people and they are attempting to do this by going about their business like a coterie of Holy Roman burgraves making hushed midnight plans to assassinate someone with a poisonous reptile or otherwise disrupt the nuptials of the Duke of Brunswick-L√ľneburg to the daughter of a fossilized Spanish count.

Many mediocre teams play in the NBA.  The Bulls operate with operatic levels of dysfunction, backbiting, reporter-assisted character assassination, and Shakespearean press conference statements delivered from a windswept cliff imported to Chicago at great expense.

Reinsdorf's press release announcing the firing of coach Tom Thibodeau was unusually venomous

The Bulls front office has a history of feuding with coaches.  Jerry Krause drove off Phil Jackson and then hired Iowa State head coach Tim Floyd.  John Paxson literally attacked Vinny Del Negro over a dispute over Joakim Noah's minutes. 

Reenactment

The Bulls then fired Del Negro and hired Tom Thibodeau, a basketball monomaniac who spent most of his time screaming ICE at the top of his lungs at a slightly less frequent clip than Arnold Schwarzenegger in that terrible Batman movie.  Thibodeau built the Bulls into an East contender until Rose began tearing his knee ligaments on an annual basis.  Even without Rose, the Bulls had an enjoyable never-say-die team that remained a pain in the ass for the East.  The Thibs Bulls reached their zenith in the 2013 playoffs when Joakim Noah and a vomiting Nate Robinson led them past the Brooklyn Nets.  The Nets were so aghast that they traded away all of their drafts to bring in some aging veterans and now are left a smoldering wreck.  After that triumph, Thibodeau began to feud with the front office over minutes.  At one point last year, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that a Bulls' assistant coach had been using fans in his office to drown out conversations because he was worried the room had been bugged and he was apparently using the Moscow Rules.

Thibodeau was fired in order to hire another coach from Iowa State.  Fred Hoiberg's first season has not gone smoothly.  Hoiberg removed Joakim Noah from the starting rotation and claimed it was his idea.  Noah disagreed.  Jimmy Butler criticized Hoiberg in the press.  The Bulls' offense, which Hoiberg was supposed to revolutionize, has languished.  It's not fair to write off a rookie coach in his first half-season, but it appears possible that the only person who wasted more money in Iowa this century than Jerry Reinsdorf is Jeb Bush, he blogged almost topically.

Following a sports team is silly; following a sports team through the bizarre edifice of interviews, statements, leaks to beat reporters, bloviation by local sports radio bloviators and calls from and endless number of Stans from Glen Ellyn, blog posts attacking beat reporters for being allied with various configurations of agents and front office sources and the Soviet Union, and players cryptically tweeting emojis is so profoundly stupid that it is irresistible.  I suppose it is possible for a smarter and more well-adjusted fan to follow the Bulls without falling victim to the miniature tempests of dysfunction that infect everything the Bulls do, but I don't know how.

Storylines from the Bulls' thrilling season have included: is this the year Derrick Rose is back; is this Jimmy Butler's team; is Derrick Rose jealous of Jimmy Butler; Derrick Rose buys Jimmy Butler a watch; Noah is coming off the bench by request; Noah denies asking to come off the bench; who elbowed Derrick Rose in the face; when is Derrick Rose back; Jimmy criticizes Hoiberg publicly; is Derrick Rose the worst player in the NBA; does Hoiberg know the NBA rules; is Derrick Rose back now that he no longer has a mask; is this Jimmy Butler's team; is Niko Mirotic being operated on with Bulgakov instruments; Derrick Rose-- is he back.

Is Derrick Rose back

I have no idea how a sports front office works.  They control a multi-million dollar business based on the skills and health of a dozen players and a group of coaches and support staff. They are constantly assailed by thousands of fans who literally boo and cheer them and are covered by an absurd network of reporters, bloggers, television personalities, and interested amateurs who delve into the workings of the team with the tenacity of a Nicholas Cage character splitting the Declaration of Independence in half to reveal a Secret Declaration of Independence written in a code that can only be solved by stealing the Liberty Bell and aligning it with the moon on a secret panel hidden underneath Monticello. Yet, the Bulls have decided that they should be portrayed in the media as an organization that runs by smashing goblets against walls, by hurrying rumors out to the press by their swiftest courier, by publicly telling employees they have failed them for the last time and then paying them millions to go away only because it is not currently legal in the United States for basketball teams to operate trap doors that open into a bottomless pit.

The Bulls are no longer in contention for anything.  Joakim Noah is injured and has probably played his last game as a Bull.  Jimmy Butler hurt his knee and plans to return this season before inevitably succumbing to the endless cycle of back and not back.  Derrick Rose has become an albatross.  Niko Mirotic lies languishing on in a hospital.  Pau Gasol may or may not be traded in the next several hours.  Kirk Hinrich is now more compression sleeve than man.  The fate of the Bulls remains in the hands of their Brains Trust: John Paxson, the Latrell Sprewell of General Managers, and Gar Forman, a dead-eyed human iguana.  The Bulls may look radically different by the time you read this, but the endless Bulls soap opera will continue until a long-lost twin Derrick Rose with amnesia is discovered with two healthy knees and the picks the Bulls traded for Doug McDermott.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Northwestern 2016: This Is Our Concern, Dude

It is February, we've subjected ourselves to ritualistic rodent-bothering, and Northwestern athletics have sunk into a pit of despair.

The innovative camera-tophat gives viewers a livestream of groundhog manhandling

On New Year's Day, Northwestern took its 10-2 record and dominant defense to the Outback Bowl and got mercilessly trampled by Tennessee.  I've spent the last several weeks painstakingly editing the Outback Bowl footage to show exactly where the 'Cats went wrong with an in-depth look at Northwestern's football strategy:


In the end, Northwestern's defeat at the hands of the Volunteers looked identical to its previous two losses.  A tight defensive game gave way to a complete dismantling in the second half as the offense sputtered to a halt and turned the ball over repeatedly.  The 'Cats were unable to pull off another upset, and their bowl streak halted at one.

Despite the sour ending, this has been one of the greatest seasons in the history of Northwestern football.  The Wildcats, predicted to spend the season scrapping with with the likes of Purdue and Illinois in the dustbin of the Big Ten West, went 10-2, tortured opponents with a legitimately great defense, and, in classic Northwestern fashion, attempted to kill fans with a series of cliff-hanging wins.  These victories included an opening-day upset against one of the best teams in college football that involved turning Stanford's own body clocks against them, which, if you think of it, is the greatest defense of them all.  They also saw the return of Big Kick Jack Mitchell, a Legitimate Victory granted when referees disallowed an apparent game-winning Wisconsin touchdown catch because a catch is now an indefinable abstract concept determined only by communion with unholy forces beyond our comprehension, and a reclamation of the Hat from a listing Illini team in front of what appeared to be a dozen people at Soldier Field.  This is a glorious season.  Not every team gets to go home a happy bowl winner; in fact, a recent study shows that nearly half of all bowl participants lose their bowl games.

Next season, the Wildcats face Big Ten East powers Michigan State and Ohio State.  Their perfect record in close games will likely not repeat.  Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff will have to figure out how to replace Dean Lowry, Nick VanHoose, Deonte Gibson, Superback Dan Vitale, and other senior standouts.  At some point, Fitzgerald and Mick McCall will have to devise an offense besides Justin Jackson The Ball Carrier and his Merry Punting Brigade.  The playbook will hopefully expand as Clayton Thorson enters his second year under center; the Wildcats have enough talent returning on defense that even a mediocre offense could put a good scare into Big Ten opponents beyond the possibility of the deployment of a Spooky Tarp.

Northwestern should just lean into the gothic uniform and put unsettling 
images on the tarp so an opposing wide receivers will be startled and 
chilled in the crucial seconds before making a catch

Northwestern does not win ten games often.  It has happened only three other times.  Next year, The Wildcats will come into the season with higher expectations.  Hopefully, next season the 'Cats can keep the momentum going, securing the Hat, making a bowl game, and claiming adding another city to its expanding list of cities Northwestern is the Big Ten Team of.

NORTHWESTERN BASKETBALL IS AN EDVARD MUNCH PAINTING

This was supposed to be the year until it wasn't.  Everything had set up for Northwestern to make a run at the NCAA Tournament with an emerging young team and old Carmody stalwarts Tre Demps and Alex Olah.  Instead, the Dance dream ended before the season began with Vic Law's injury.  The 'Cats still flew out of the gate with a 12-1 record to enter Big Ten play, losing only to basketball superpower North Carolina.  The record, however, was deceptive in that many of the Wildcat's famous victories came against obscure teams that materialized at Welsh-Ryan arena, lost, then vanished into the night never to be heard from again.  Both big men, Olah and The Flying Dutchman Joey Van Zegeren, injured their feet and literally limped into Big Ten play.  Then, as the season threatened to fall apart entirely, Chris Collins unleashed The Pardoning on Nebraska.  In only his second college game, freshman Dererk Pardon, who had been slated to sit out the entire year, burned Lincoln to the ground with a 28-point 12-rebound performance. 

Nebraska is mercilessly Pardoned

Northwestern basketball inspired dreams of a long-awaited tournament berth that were quickly dashed by the Big Ten.  The Wildcats faced an unprecedented gauntlet of top-ranked teams who formed themselves into a single gigantic forward that dunked furiously on the entire city of Evanston. Though they annihilated Minnesota and beat a rebuilding Wisconsin team, the 'Cats have also been unceremoniously blown out by Maryland, Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan State in home and away venues.

At the very least, Northwestern is coming precariously close to developing a mini-rivalry with Maryland.  Though the Terps blew Northwestern off the court in Evanston, the 'Cats managed to take them to overtime in their College Park rematch.  In this second game, NU played strong defense and destroyed Maryland on the glass in order to drag them into a miserably unwatchable early-twenty-first-century Big Ten slopfest.  Last year, only a ridiculous tip-in buzzer beater from Dez Wells with no time remaining prevented the Wildcat upset.  I think we can work with this.  As the old college sports rivalry saying goes: "Nearly lose to Northwestern once, shame on you, nearly lose to Northwestern twice I will send away for an ACME Bob Diaco Rivalry-Starting Kit."

UCONN's Bob Diaco spent most of 2015 in a truly remarkable 
attempt to unilaterally create a rivalry with Central Florida 
by making his own trophy, creating a Beckman Clock, and 
persevering in the face of UCF not wanting to have anything 
to do with it before winning his own trophy back. "They [UCF] 
don't get to say whether they are our rival or not," Diaco said,
inadvertantly creating the first postmodern college 
football rivalry

Northwestern's already-gossamer tournament hopes are completely gone.  The chances for NIT qualification are vanishing with every clanged jumper.  On the other hand, the most terrifying stretch of the schedule has passed.  A few wins against teams that are not already tournament locks could give them enough momentum to sneak into the NIT or one of those sub-NIT tournaments where entry is granted only by reciting the password through a slotted door should Collins and the Wildcat brass deign to participate.

SUPER BOWL ANALYSIS

The Super Bowl arrives this Sunday and the entire beer-guzzling, nacho-hoovering, going on websites to see the unrated version of the commercial population of these United States is focusing on Denver's superstar quarterback.  And, with the lights on him, Chicago's Big Ten Quarterback Trevor Siemian is going to turn Super Bowl L into Super Bowl "El."

Siemian, who made his stunning debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been described as the "Bronco's secret weapon" and "the linchpin of the Super Bowl" by Outlandish Pullquote magazine.  

Siemian calmly rallying the troops before organizing a critical half-ending kneeldown
  
Siemian had success as part of a two-quarterback system at Northwestern with Kain Colter.  Colter handled the option and the it's third and long and everyone in the solar system knows he is going to take off right here no one can stop it and he got the the fourth down against Ohio State I have several hinged videos about this on Youtube offense while Siemian threw passes.  Now, though, Siemian is in the NFL where two-quarterback systems are laughable anachronisms.  Instead, he is part of an innovative three-quarterback system.  Peyton Manning's job is to gesticulate for 39 seconds like a frustrated middle manager hell-bent on promotion before wobbling passes into the void.  Osweiler's job is to stand on the sidelines and use his height to shield manning from the sun.  Siemian's job is to instruct Manning on when to switch from Omaha to another Midwestern city in a move that will paralyze the Carolina defense in the same way that Rocky switched from right to left-handed against Apollo Creed in Rocky II.  Imagine the look on Luke Kuechly's face when Manning paces behind the line of scrimmage with his face scrunched up, pointing to the mike and key popcorn vendors with an unusual cadence that can screw up the snap count before looking Kuechly right in the eye and yelling ROLLA or DAVENPORT or OCONOMOWOC and then handing off to a running back with the Panthers on their heels.

Here's ace CBS analyst Phil Simms's breakdown of Siemian's game from his NFL debut:
"WELL I KNOW THEY LIKE 'EEM," Simms says, "WELL OF COURSE THEY LIKE 'EEM THAT'S WHY HE'S THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK. BUT WE'VE BEEN OUT TO A FEW BRONCOS GAMES, I'VE WATCHED HIM PRACTICE, HE THROWS THE FOOTBALL VERY WELL."

As you can see Football Expert Phil Simms is pointing out that Siemian's got all the tools to succeed in the National Football League.  First of all, he's on the team, and, as Trent Dilfer has said "YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL TEAM TO SUCCEED IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE EITHER THROUGH THE DRAFT OR THE FREE AGENCY PROCESS IN THE [glances quickly down to his palm where he has discreetly written in marker] NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE."  Second, he throws the football.  There's some controversy over this lately, but according to advanced numbers, a quarterback has to throw the ball to help his team in this League that is National and Football.  Otherwise, quarterback is left with few options: to run and risk fumbles and injury, to lateral the ball to a nearby running back or offensive lineman while screaming "AAAAHHH YOU THROW IT" before scampering in the direction of the sideline, or to propel himself across the line of scrimmage by rigging up an illegal slingshot mechanism in the dead of night.  No, my misinformed friend, the quarterback needs to be able to the throw the ball and according to Phil Simms, Siemian throws it, and this is a direct quote from his months of painstaking Siemian analysis "very well."  Expect the Broncos to sign Colter this off-season and rig up an offense that will propel them into an NFL dynasty.

BATTLE OF THE DUDES

Nineteenth-century America was a rough-and-tumble time when an ordinary dude could not walk down the street without being forced to change into dandyish costume at a moment's notice.  At least, this is what happened in the "Battle of the Dudes" between Evander Berry Wall and Bob Hilliard.  The nineteenth-century dude differed from his contemporary counterpart; it referred to clotheshorses with elaborate costume, sartorial flourish, and, it goes without saying, impeccable mustaches.

Evander Berry Wall (l) and Robert Hilliard, whose ferocious dude battles 
terrorized New Yorkers who lived in constant fear of getting hit by a stray 
greatcoat flourish

Berry, who had already been crowned King of the Dudes in 1883, defended his title in 1888 in a newspaper-sponsored Battle of the Dudes.  I'll let a 2005 article from the New York Sun that unfortunately does not have any further sources that would let me fall down a dude rabbit hole explain:
Wall became famous after meeting Blakely Hall, a reporter hungry for good copy. Thereafter, every week or so, Hall's articles publicizing Wall's adventures in clothing appeared in newspapers across the country. Then one of Hall's competitors set up a rival, actor Robert "Bob" Hilliard, another flashy dresser. Thus began the Battle of the Dudes, in which each sought to eclipse the other in sartorial extremes. According to the Times, Wall finally won when, during the Great Blizzard of 1888, he strode into the Hoffman House bar clad in gleaming boots of black patent leather that went to his hips. (Nonetheless, some social historians claim Hilliard won with the high boots, supposedly part of his Western gambler's costume from a play in which he was then appearing).
Yet, some dispute this result, explained in this glorious Wikipedia sentence that I want as my epitaph: "Nevertheless, some historians still consider it was Hilliard who won that dude battle."

Wall, however, would not let his Dude Crown rest upon his head.  As the Sun article elaborates:
Wall won another contest in Saratoga when daredevil financier John "Bet-A-Million" Gates wagered that he could not wear 40 changes of clothes between breakfast and dinner. On the appointed day, Wall repeatedly appeared at the racetrack in one flashy ensemble after another until, exhausted but victorious, he at last entered the ballroom of the United States Hotel in faultless evening attire to wild applause.
The visual on this is astounding: Wall, flying to and from the racetrack changing his clothes like a panting off-stage Daffy Duck before crushing Bet-A-Million Gates with his splendor of his tuxedo.  Gates made his initial fortune in barbed wire, where, according once again to a brilliantly stilted Wikipedia editor, he "provoked cattle into charging into a barbed wire fence which did not break."
 
WALL: You mean I need forty combinations, each unique, 
                 each mesmerizing, each perfectly-tailored, tip-top-fashion, 
                 elegant, graceful, beguiling, all in the course of the single 
                 day my man?
GATES: That is our concern, dude.

CHEER UP, DUDES

Northwestern football ended its glorious season on a sour note.  Northwestern basketball has suffered a string of blowout losses during a brutal stretch of games against some of the best teams in the country.  Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism.  The basketball team is still very young and may have discovered an inside force with Pardon.  It is still possible for the 'Cats to catch fire at the end of the season, steal a tourney game or two, and make an unlikely run at the NIT.  The football team just received a bunch of faxes from teenagers who want to smash into people for Northwestern.  Trevor Siemian has a chance to win a Super Bowl ring.  And, should all else fail, and should the Wildcats fall short this spring and next fall, they can still win in the way that counts more than any other: by changing into 40 nineteenth-century gentleman's outfits in the course of a single day climaxing, of course, in the donning of a wearable Hat trophy, together we can do this.