Friday, March 17, 2017


Every other year, that ludicrous 35-foot Vanderbilt three would have gone in.  Or that last second halfcourt heave would have banked high off the backboard and through in a grotesque parody of Northwestern's tournament-saving pass, and the Wildcats' first-ever NCAA Tournament game would go into the giant pile of gut-wrenching blown leads, buzzer-beaters, complete bamboozlement in the face of a press, or times when the games seemed to end with the court itself snaring Northwestern players and dragging them into underground service areas and zamboni antechambers.  Instead, the Wildcats held on, took advantage of the most delightfully ill-conceived foul in the history of college basketball, and booked themselves into a clash with top-seeded Gonzaga because it is 2017 and Northwestern basketball has become immune to even the most obvious and inopportune Northwesterning situations.

There was no panic in this one.  Even as Vanderbilt rained threes upon the Wildcats and the NBA Jam announcer guy elbowed his way through dozens of security guards to try to seize the mic and scream HE'S ON FIRE at America, the comeback didn't hit the impending Northwestern sports catastrophe area of my brain because they had already made the tournament.  The never-ending and at times impossible attempt for them just to get there had already wrung everything out-- a blown tournament game lead has nothing on sweating out a home win against Rutgers under the ever-watchful eye of the Selection Committee. 

The Wildcats welcomed a national audience of people who had never been subjected to Northwestern sports with a traditional game where nothing makes sense and the play-by-play can be just as easily replaced with maniacal cackling; Northwestern games are not watched much as they happen to people.  In the last minute and a half, the two teams swapped leads half a dozen times.  Dererk Pardon iced clutch free throw after clutch free throw.  Then, just as the Commodores managed to grab another lead and Northwestern prepared to set up the inevitable Bryant McIntosh isolation play, Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis, possibly subliminally programmed by years of Northwestern alums screaming at him about sports through his television and then activated by seeing Doug Collins's face turn a particular strain of magenta, inexplicably lunged at McIntosh and sent him to the line.

This is the most Dorothea Lange sports photo since the miserable woman clutching her child 
bravely in the face of Browns football

What an absolute bummer for Fisher-Davis, who had heroically shot Vanderbilt back into contention and picked the absolute worst time to blunder-- on the first day of the Tournament, in front of a national TV audience, against a school whose alumni are allowed to crash like an army of Kool-Aid men and women through the walls of ESPN studio shows and bloviate about the Wildcats, and in a situation that features the largest percentage of dudes watching the game who are alarmingly eager to explain to a neophyte why actually it is a bad strategy to foul there.

Northwestern fans showed up at the tournament.  A school that has played the vast majority of its home games in front of jeering visiting fans in their variegated Big Ten hoodies managed to take over Salt Lake City's arena with a raucous purple mob.

I can't see the Salt Lake City arena without immediately humming the bridge for Roundball 
Rock and waiting for Marv Albert to futilely ask whether or not Karl Malone would be able to 
come through in the clutch

The Wildcats' reward for their first win in the NCAA tournament is a dragon from the end of the map.  Tournament mainstay Gonzaga has its own tournament burden because the team has repeatedly fallen victim to disappointing tournament exits.  This year, expectations are at their loftiest.  They've only lost a single game the entire season and they've spent time as the top-ranked team in the nation.  Northwestern managed its top rank of 25 for one week where a panicking Associated Press graphics department was unable to locate a Wildcat logo for their poll.  Gonzaga will be heavily favored and motivated to break their own, much more ambitious barrier and qualify for their first Final Four. 


There's that scene in Moneyball where all the crusty old scouts are sitting around chewing tobacco and they start evaluating talent based on whether a baseball player is handsome.  This is held up as the acme of Old Scout luddism, old leathery men whose decades spent squatting behind radar guns in the sun and shriveling up in budget hotel rooms can be obliterated at once by knowledge of onbase percentage.  Their methods are primitive, outmoded, and absurd and we're supposed to laugh at them and their inability to number-munch. Who thinks like that anymore?  Every day, as I sit around descending into the muck of sports takes on the internet and occasionally get dumb enough to listen to the angry, nasal men of Chicago sports radio it becomes clearer and clearer that the majority of NFL fans judge quarterback play almost exclusively by their face.

Football fans demand square-jawed quarterbacks.  The steely-eyed guy who can look at the huddle and tell his team they are winning the game and also do the same to issue non-answers about getting caught texting pictures of their penis to people.  Sure there are exceptions, but some-- like the Manning Brothers with their grotesque interception faces and Andrew Luck who looks like a spittle-flecked forest troll-- carried such a high pedigree that they were able to blunt criticism immediately. Otherwise, the freak shows like a bloated, waddling JaMarcus Russell or the Super Mario Koopa Troopa lookalike Jimmy Clausen always lead to fans despising them.

Jimmy Clausen takes questions at Halas Hall 

That is, I think, the central problem with Jay Cutler.  Cutler will go down as the Bears' best quarterback they will likely ever have, which honestly says more about the Bears and their moribund quarterback death-spiral than anything about him.  I don't know if I will ever see a more locally despised athlete and it all comes down to his face. Cutler has a leering, scoffing, face, a mug that is so openly contemptuous of everyone and everything around it that he doesn't even seem to have the energy to bother bullying people.  The most popular and possibly apocryphal story about Cutler is that he dealt with a fawning fan in a bathroom by leaning his head back and braying DOOOOOOOOOOOON'T CARE to the ceiling and for most Bears fans, that is how he spent his time in Chicago, leaning his head back in indifference and urinating more or less continuously for eight years.

Bears fans would have been able to forgive Cutler, or at the least watch him while suppressing the apparently universal human urge to strangle him, if he had managed to lead them to a championship. And there were glimmers!  His greatest run to the 2010 NFC Championship Game ended with an injury.  He spend most of his time dealing with incompetent offensive lines and eventually desiccated defenses.  At the same time, Cutler was never good enough to rise beyond the Bears' general, inbred incompetence enabled by a swarm of coaches, coordinators, and nincompoop front office personnel. He threw a ton of interceptions so profoundly dumb that they seemed spiteful.  It didn't help that the Cutler era paired with the rise of Aaron Rodgers, his opposite in every way, who is so infuriatingly good at playing quarterback that he demands only ten functioning human beings to score a zillion touchdowns.

There have been a ton of really shitty Bears quarterbacks, all of whom were way worse than Cutler but are far more fondly remembered because they were scrappy try-hards.  The irony of Cutler is that he was that way on the field, a guy who threw linebackers around with his throwing shoulder, a guy whose greatest weakness came from trying desperately to squeeze a throw into vanishingly tight windows, a guy who got pummeled more or less continuously to the point where the phrase "nine sacks in the fist half" became a reliable Chicago accent shibboleth, yet remains despised because 99 percent of humans who see a picture of his face immediately want to see him karate kicked in the scrotum.

Cutler was also, beyond his face, probably not a pleasant dude.  He constantly feuded with teammates and coaches (my favorite story was an assistant coach under Trestman anonymously shit all over him in the media and then tearfully apologized-- imagine tearfully apologizing to Jay Cutler).  Maybe if he won enough, all that would be forgiven, the way NFL explains away Tom Brady's infantile flag-begging tantrums or the way the Colts allowed Peyton Manning to summon the energy of the sun and blast it into his teammates' skulls through his gigantic, ray-gathering forehead.

The Bears have a new GM and a new coach and the only reason why they didn't build a catapult and fire Cutler into the lake is because of his onerous contract.  Now, they can finally be rid of him and hop back on the never-ending Treadmill of Bears Quarterback Mediocrity.  At his age, and with the completely barren team around him, there was no point in keeping him around.  But I hope, for the Bears' sake, that my theory of quarterback faces isn't true because look what just rolled into town.

The pre-Moneyball face scouting extends beyond quarterbacks.  Cutler's coach for several seasons was Marc Trestman, a guy who looked at all times like he was desperately sprinting after a bus.  In college sports, there's no better example than Tom Crean, who I am convinced could have wathered another down year at Indiana except that fans could not handle his uncanny valley face and weird and unsettling body postures that make him look like an incompetently programmed video game character.


Northwestern is in its golden age of sports.  In a single calendar year, they've won a bowl game and qualified for the NCAA Tournament; these are incredible feats for a school with sports teams unknown except for their prodigious and unfathomable losing streaks.  The Wildcats have even begun to attract a backlash built because sports media alumni have now begun breaking into people's homes and screaming about Northwestern basketball at them in the middle of the night, and the inability of a middle-aged sports reporters to refrain from dropping Seinfeld references.  

Gonzaga will be Northwestern's toughest opponent this season.  They're favored by double-digits and all of the analysts have KenPommed the Wildcats out of the tournament by Saturday night.  But in a year when the Wildcats have already shattered every expectation in the history of the program, why not add in an insane and improbable upset run to the Sweet Sixteen?  After a game when an opponent brutally northwesterned itself in front of a sea of purple, the laws of the universe no longer apply.  

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