Friday, February 24, 2017


For the past week, the Bulls have sat on a detonator as the potential catalysts for a blockbuster trade that could have blown a dent in the inevitable LeBron James romp to the NBA Finals.  They could have sent Jimmy Butler to Boston for a mix of players and draft picks that everyone decided to start referring to as "assets" awhile back when basketball executives all became spreadsheet-monger MBAs that speak in TED Talk dialects instead of grizzled scouts and former players who based personnel decisions on phrenology.

The Celtics could have used Butler to join scoring dynamo Isaiah Thomas and an armada of interchangeable Glue Guy wing players to try to finally stop a hobbled Cavs team.  The Bulls would then begin to rebuild, fortified by at least one of the Brooklyn Nets draft picks ceded to the Celtics for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett after a vomiting Nate Robinson had heroically vanquished them from the playoffs.  The trade did not take place.  The Bulls were not satisfied with the offer, and Butler will remain a Bull, heroically attempting to drag the carcass of this shambling basketball wreck to the playoffs.

In the end, the Bulls made a trade.  They sent stalwart Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and their 2018 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne. 

I don't know anything about Taj Gibson even though he had been on the Bulls longer than anyone on the team.  Gibson came in off the bench for most of his career, played excellent defense, sank some baseline jumpers, and stayed upright through the endless maelstrom of Bulls bullshit; he was there when John Paxson allegedly throttled Vinny Del Negro, when Rose blew out his knee and then kept returning as a faded, ghoulish specter of himself, when the front office waged an insane war against Tom Thibodeau of such beguiling complexity that it climaxed in accusations of office bugging, when the entire team turned against each other in an elaborate Instagram-fueled civil war, when the Bulls went from an exciting contender to a bizarre wasteland of bricked shots where everyone yells at each other all of the time.  Gibson remained a staid, steady presence, only occasionally breaking out to dunk someone into a coffin and then unhinge his jaw and bellow into the United Center rafters to the approval of a roaring crowd and a roaring Carlos Boozer who spent five years on the Bulls screaming more or less continuously.

This Gibson dunk on Wade from 2011 was 
so vicious that Wade plotted to leave the Heat 
under acrimonious circumstances five years 
later, inexplicably join the Bulls, and begin a 
devious sabotage campaign that only looks 
like a hall-of-famer marooned on a mediocre, 
dysfunctional team coached by a Dairy Queen 
night manager

The trade marks the end of the Doug McDermott Era of Chicago Bulls basketball.  The Bulls gave up an absurd haul of picks to move up and select him even though he had some red flags: poor combine numbers, the inability to play basketball without a t-shirt.   McDermott never justified the price, and played at times like a fringe rotation player; nevertheless he was the Bulls' most important player as Gar Forman seemed to want to remake the team in his image.  They cast McDermott as the solution to their offensive woes under Tom Thibodeau, where the Bulls attempted to move the ball on the air currents generated by Thibodeau's horase hollering.  They fired Thibodeau and brought in Fred Hoiberg to run an Iowa Offense. Everything McDermott did was at least interesting, whether it was inexplicably catching fire to continue the Bulls' hilarious winning streak against the Raptors or defending by chasing opposing shooters down like Clint Eastwood attempting to stop his partner from being shot in a haunting flashback.  We will miss McDermott, who will flourish standing in a corner while four opponents swarm Russell Westbrook while futilely calling for the ball.

The centerpiece of the Bulls-Thunder trade is Cameron Payne.  Payne is only 22, but coming off a broken foot and one of the statistically worst seasons of any NBA player this season. The acquisition of Payne, who joins a bloated backcourt of identically flawed young guards remains a mystery; the Bulls now exist as a mystical, ten-armed guard that cannot shoot with any of them.  Perhaps Payne, a former lottery pick, can flourish outside of the shadow of Russell Westbrook.  Perhaps they favored him because his former college coach Steve Prohm happens to be the man who took Fred Hoiberg's old job at Iowa State, which seems like a dumb theory until you remember that Iowa State now exists as a shadowy Pynchonian institution in the minds of a certain species of internet Bulls fans that keeps popping up in everything surrounding the team until a conspiracy either reveals itself or drives them to madness.

After several letters to Iowa State returned unopened, Stan 
from Glen Ellyn came home to a ransacked apartment. 
The giant, red bird sat on his stained recliner, feet-claws 
propped on the ottoman, smoking a pipe from a tiny hole 
bored into the middle of its fabric teeth. He handed me a 
card. It said "Dr. Splad Halfnelson, Iowa State Department 
of Basketball Conspiracy." "The first thing you need to know 
is that this whole thing is because of the perversity. The 
freaks," he said.

Both Morrow and Lauvergne are expiring contracts and likely have no future with the Bulls or American organized basketball.  Morrow's three point shooting has fallen below 30%, which makes him as effective as a kickboxer coming off a leg amputation.  Lauvergne, a sweet-shooting French big man, has the rebounding and shotblocking prowess of a muzzled Tyrannosaurus.

The trade raises more questions that it answers.  The Bulls currently exist as Jimmy Butler and a scaffolding of declining veterans and young players that seem headed to the Adriatic League without some sort of holy revelation about jumpshooting.  They may eventually decide to deal Butler this summer, sell off any player with some value, and plunge the team into the inevitable morass of basketball misery in hopes of landing another star in the draft. But this trade, and the multifarious draft misses, inept trades, and constant atmosphere of intrigue that surrounds the front office leaves little hope for the future no matter what path they take.


Russian literature is filled with madmen, half-understood outbursts at receptions, and enigmatic grudges, and that is just the academic literature conventions.  That impression comes from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman's celebration of Russian writers coupled with a memoir of travel to Moscow and Uzbekistan interwoven with digressions on ice palaces and Tolstoy murder conspiracy.    
The largest chunk of the book involves a summer spent in an intense Uzbek-language course in Samarkand.  She has two instructors: a philosophy graduate student who teaches from a Soviet textbook "exclusively through the lens of cotton production: a valuable lesson in monomania" and an Old Uzbek literature professor who disseminated poems, fables, and history.  "Shaking her head sorrowfully, she told me that Genghis Khan did not only ride a bull, but he didn't wear any pants.  She said that God should forgive her for mentioning such things to me, 'but he didn't wear any pants.'"

In another chapter, Batuman travels to Moscow to write an article on the reconstruction of the House of Ice as part of a St. Petersburg's White Days.  Empress Ioannova had ordered the construction of the ice palace in 1740 as part of a festival that would culminate with the forced wedding of two jesters in her court.  Armed guards compelled the couple to spend the night in the frozen palace, dancing and running around in order to stay warm.  The House of Ice featured functioning ice cannons, ice furniture, ice logs in an ice fireplace, and a water-spouting ice elephant, a dedication to ice so elaborate that even Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze character would suggest that they maybe cool it with the ice before sadly realizing that the ice puns had so colonized his thoughts that he had no choice but to surrender to his greatest enemy, room temperature.

Reproduction of the House of Ice in St. Petersburg in 2006.  
Why did the Russian government decide to pay tribute to 
a former monarch's insanely elaborate lark to freeze her 
subjects?  According to Batuman, "[Valery] Gromov, a 
former army management official, and [Svetlana] 
Mikheyeyeva, a former doctor and healthcare manager, 
had conceived of this dream during an international 
management training program in Tokyo in 1999, where 
they ended up stuck in a broken elevator with the chairman 
of the Association of Russian Snow, Ice, and Sand Sculptors."

The Possessed on its surface is a hard sell: come for the exploration of Girardian memetic theory in Dostoevksy and stay for negotiations about artifact captions at an academic Isaac Babel conference, but it all works because Batuman is a wonderful writer and brilliantly funny.  Batuman depicts the academic world of literature as absurd and even grotesque while never dampening her own underlying argument about the resonance and vitality of the books and authors she loves.


Northwestern followed a panicky home win against Rutgers with a demoralizing loss to Illinois. The Chicago Tribune consulted some Certified Bracketologists who tell us that they are still ok, that one more win should finally put them in the dang Tournament, that the State Farm Center ceiling has not caved in and brought ruin to the season, but my default setting remains tournament-related panic. Still, there is nothing to do but hope they can beat a reeling Hoosier squad, that all the other bubble teams shamefully collapse on their home courts in front of wailing fans, and that the Wildcats won't be exiled to the NIT or an exotic alternative tournament in an ice palace.        

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Golden Age of Sports Gimmickry

Welsh-Ryan Arena is an ear-splitting thunderdome filled with 8,000 Icaruses flying headlong into the sun.  The Northwestern Wildcats are poised to make the NCAA Tournament and end the streak that follows their every dribble and appears in the night sky over Evanston after "The Northwestern Wildcats Have Never Made The NCAA Tournament" had been carved into the moon on the final Apollo mission.

Northwestern's quest to achieve its finest hour in men's basketball by qualifying for a 68-team tournament appeared to end at the hands of blood-rivals Illinois. The Illini, driven to hatless misery in football, had decided to exact their revenge on Northwestern by taking their historically great basketball program and driving it to the unfathomable depths of being markedly worse than Northwestern and then waiting for the Wildcats' star guard to become ill, beating them in Evanston, and sending them flying back into the bubble and prophesies of basketball doom.

Northwestern's Tournament hopes faded after the Illinois game

Instead, Northwestern rallied to its greatest victory in the modern era, an upset of Wisconsin, without Scottie Lindsey, in the Badgers' impregnable basketball fortress.  The Wildcats' big men neutralized Wisconsin's star Ethan Happ by enmeshing him in double teams, and Bryant McIntosh went off for 25 points.  The game even had a Meaningless Dunk Controversy, with Greg Gard appearing furious because Sanjay Lumpkin went for a cathartic breakaway dunk instead of dribbling out the clock. This type of thing only happens in college sports, which have evolved a late-game etiquette as complex as the rules governing the Court at Versailles and devolve into duels where angry coaches meet with their seconds in deserted fields and do disrespectful handshakes to each other at fifteen paces.

It is possible that Gard was less upset about the dunk than Chris Collins's 
psychotic Rambo Scream calisthenics

The win against Wisconsin erased the creeping desperation that kicked in after the Illinois loss. They got the Signature Win that the selection committee demands like an overbearing wizard in a text-based adventure game.  The bracketmancers and tournament gurus seem to indicate that they've still got an excellent shot to make it, even after a tough home loss to Maryland.  From what I understand, they still need a few more wins to secure their bid. They await the return of Scottie Lindsey and a visit from the a Rutgers team whose main offensive play appears to pouring quicksand onto the court and sinking into it.  The only thing stopping Northwestern from escaping The Drought is to avoid a ludicrous, Northwestern-like collapse.  


Northwestern's greatest successes earlier this century relied on any attempt to find a strategic edge. Randy Walker's 2000 football team became one of the first in the Big Ten to embrace the spread offense, and they used to to win a Big Ten championship.  Football analyst Chris Brown called Northwestern's 54-51 victory over Michigan the "most important game in the history of the spread offense" that presaged a revolution of shotgun snaps and zone reads, and flinty quarterbacks darting around all over the place and hucking the ball through the Football Brand schools and their elite guard of hulking linebackers. 

The Wildcats still run a spread offense, but its novelty has been diluted as even the most lumbering midwestern football traditionalists have adopted it.  Still, the 'Cats managed to break their endless streak of bowl losses in part with a satisfyingly gimmicky two quarterback system designed to break the brains of defensive coordinators forced to figure out if Northwestern would run with the passing quarterback while the offense held up placards featuring pictures of a cat-stroking Ernest Blofeld, Professor Moriarty, and one of those comic book villains with a giant head that shows they're good at thinking of diabolical plots, that's why they have a bulbous, pulsing head.

He is the Napoleon of offense. He is a genius, a 
philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain 
of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider 
in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand 
radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each 
of them and that is why he had Trevor Siemian 
slowly clomp over towards the sideline because he 
is the "passing quarterback" and no one will ever see 
it coming

The recent vintages of the football team have reversed course from insane video game offenses desperately attempting to outscore the other team to smashmouth defenses trying to score a point and then run time off the clock.  The ten-win 2015 team clobbered opposing offenses and then spent offensive possessions building an elaborate subterranean network of tunnels and trenches until the game ended.    

At the same time, Northwestern basketball had its own unique system. Bill Carmody brought over the Princeton Offense and a 1-3-1 zone defense.  The Princeton offense was based on patiently probing the perimeter, waiting for a backcut, and taking all 35 seconds of the shot clock while everyone in the arena inched closer to death.  The 2004 team beat Purdue 40-39, and no international agency intervened. Carmody's teams were bizarre and mismatched, and he pulled players from all corners of the globe.  Jitim Young, a do-it-all 6'2" All Big Ten guard, led the team in rebounding.  There was always a 6'8" guy who could shoot. They arrived, as a collection of spindly limbs and plastic facemasks and undersized players at every position with their rumpled coach who looked at all times like he had been sentenced to coach basketball and they won enough games to qualify for the NIT four years in a row and come within about 20 combined seconds of making the Tournament.

Bill Carmody always seemed about three 
seconds away from lighting up a cigarette

The central appeal of these teams was not only that they won, but that they also appeared to be getting away with something.  Carmody and Walker won games partially by bamboozling other staid coaches in the most staid athletic conference. The Big Ten, especially in the early 2000s, was known both in basketball and football for bruising, punishing physicality.  Northwestern didn't merely beat a highly-ranked Michigan team, they used a then-novel offense to beat Lloyd Carr, the gold standard of Big Ten stodgery.  They nearly made the NCAA Tournament behind a jumpshot so ludicrous that it appears to have been designed by Jim Henson.  

This was before Shurna's moved to Spain to play in the 
Licanthropic Basketball League (Liga de Baloncesto 

Northwestern fans would take this recent run of relative sports success any way they can-- perhaps the most shocking novelty is that Northwestern teams are winning bowl games and getting to postseason tournaments whether it turns out to be the Elusive NCAA Tournament, the NIT, or the College Basketball Tournament/Underground Splinter Group Chess Boxing Championship that the Athletic Department has refused to participate in despite invitations sent by sparrow in dead of night. But if this marks the end of the teams winning through exotic zone defense or taking powder out of their shorts and blowing it into opponents' eyes, it's worth remembering Northwestern's run as a laboratory of desperate, effective Rube Goldberg strategies.