Sunday, March 31, 2019


It is impossible to write anything more evocative on Northwestern's tortured, miserable, last-place basketball season than this gif of Chris Collins on all fours slapping the floor, his eyes glazed with a sheen of madness.  This might be my favorite basketball gif of all time.  Collins is no longer coaching.  He is not drawing a play.  He is not giving an inspirational speech about rebounding.  He is watching his team hang tough with the number two ranked team in the country, he has seen a foul called, and he is reacting as if he is Charlton Heston and the University of Michigan has erected a Statue of Liberty in the student section.

One of the funniest things about sports, and college sports in particular, is the dichotomy between the figure of the coach as stern disciplinarian, here to shape athletes into better people under his or her gruff tutelage and the fact that we allow them to spend games in a maniacal reverie that would be otherwise baffling and unacceptable in any other context.  Successful coaches are allowed to parlay their fame into getting paid to go into a grain silo accessories sales executive convention and talking about Leadership and Discipline and Being A Winner Who Wins Like A Winner and then getting onto a field or a court to scream at an official while their heads flash red like an airplane wing light and their faces swell and bulge into an impression of the world's least subtle mime acting out a dogbite on the groin scenario and this is apparently fine.

There's a reason to draw a thread between Chris Collins's on-court histrionics and Northwestern's rough season because Wildcat fans are searching for a reason for a slew of early departures that have ravaged the team since Collins took over.  If there is one common theme for the Chris Collins era other than the triumphant 2017 tournament berth, it has been departure.  Several of Collins's recruits have transferred to make way for other players; one player alleges in a lawsuit that he was essentially thrown off the team and encouraged to give up an athletic scholarship via methods that included being barred from practice, remanded to landscaping duties, and getting accused of shirking through time cards that look like they had been forged and doctored because the person filling them out could not successfully spell his name.

This week, three graduated players with eligibility remaining have decided to leave as graduate transfers.  Barrett Benson, a presumed starter at center, graduated in three years in order to hasten his departure.  It is, I suppose, not fair to speculate on why players are leaving the program-- they may all have their own reasons, and the timing could be a coincidence-- but I do not think it is unfair to at least ask some questions about the guy above who looks like he's taking a foul call less well than the villainous cartoon character Skeletor.

The swirling mass of transfers has created an air of crisis around Northwestern basketball beyond its usual crisis of being Northwestern basketball.  The 'Cats had already graduated two all-time great players in Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, both of whom had been instrumental in getting the Wildcats to the tournament for the first time; Pardon's last-second layup to beat Michigan and clinch the tourney berth is the greatest Northwestern basketball play that did not take place in the 1930s and did not involve someone building a catapult to launch the ball towards the basket under the rules of the time. 

Two years ago, Collins stood in front of a jubilant Welsh-Ryan crowd talking about beginnings.  Now, he will spend an offseason scrambling to find enough players to fill out a roster.  It's not all doom and gloom; there are several good young players who will have an opportunity to find their footing in the Big Ten and, like his last team, learn how to play together to get back to the tournament or the NIT or one of those weird tournaments where there are no rules and are played in torchlight and the hoops are hollowed out cattle skulls.


Of course Welsh-Ryan is far nicer now.  They have seats now instead of bleachers.  There are new videoscreens.  The whole building is slick and new and covered in purple like the an arena on an alien spaceship.  It glistens.  There are somehow luxury boxes, even though the person who wants to watch Northwestern basketball but in a luxury box is impossible for me to fathom.  The thing it does most effectively and depressingly is to finally destroy the quaint illusion of Northwestern basketball and put it right in line with the bizarre and inexplicable spectacle of big-time college sports.

Opposing fans always loved to grumble that Welsh-Ryan was a glorified high school arena.  That's not necessarily fair-- it was bigger than a high school arena and also sometimes had halftime entertainment like live The Simon Says Guy-- but it was certainly stripped down in comparison to sleek Big Ten buildings.  The first basketball game I ever saw at Welsh-Ryan was a high school game, and Welsh-Ryan seemed just like a natural extension of what you'd expect to see-- bleachers, but more of them; a dot scoreboard, but one that could display cartoon ads.  I didn't watch college sports when I was younger so the idea of a college team playing in an arena that was basically the gym except without a bunch of side baskets made sense.
Old Welsh-Ryan arena just before tip-off for a Big Ten game

Northwestern basketball is big time college sports collecting the same insane checks as every other Big Ten team, but it was easy to pretend that it wasn't.  Welsh-Ryan was a creaky old barn where you could literally bump into Chainsaw Nick Smith on the way to the bathroom.  And for a long time, Northwestern was not very good at basketball.  Opposing fans would take over the arena, loudly complain about it, watch their players dunk for a couple hours and go home.  Even in the years when Northwestern was decent under Bill Carmody, they seemed to be playing a different sport filled with gangly goofballls doing slow motion backcuts and undulating zone defenses.

Of course, that is illusion: college sports are the same insane, exploitative spectacle even if the team plays in a dumpy arena that's biggest selling point was minimum distance from Gene Keady and even if the team was historically bad tournament-missers.  And yet, the spectacle of college sports, especially the NCAA Tournament which was built to allow people to get fully invested in obscure teams featuring guys named like Benton Wrench somehow beating NBA players, is absolutely incredible.  That is the dichotomy of the Tournament: a delightful show plowing along as it always, and if a few minutes' scrutiny makes it impossible that it can continue for another minute before collapsing under its own contradictions that feels like just about everything right now.


The Chicago Cubs have been in three of the last four National League Championship series.  They won 95 games last season.  A Cub was runner up in the MVP vote, a different player from the Cub who won MVP just two years earlier.  They are only three seasons removed from the greatest in team history, culminating in a championship that generations had been waiting for.  Also they appear to be in complete crisis and everyone is angry with them.

Part of this comes from the Cubs completely punting on the offseason.  They gleefully joined nearly the entirety of baseball in deciding that baseball players were too expensive and sitting out the Bryce Harper and Machado sweepstakes.  Beyond that, though, the Cubs did nothing else.  They fired a bunch of coaches and brought in a utility infielder and a couple of relievers as the Cardinals, Brewers, and even the basement-dwelling Reds improved.

While the Cubs could certainly bounce back into form with the return of a healthy Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish, there seems to be a sense of treading water.  The PECOTA projections picked the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central.  Hilariously, Joe Maddon is using this as bulletin board material without stopping to think that PECOTA is literally a math formula and there is no one to gloat over if the Cubs win more than its projected 79 games unless he is secretly funding a project to implant the PECOTA formula into a host body to assume corporeal form and then invite the shambling monster to the Cubs dugout to get humiliated by disco music and crotch-thrusting dance moves after the Cubs win their 80th game.  It appears the Cubs seem poised to fire Joe Maddon, their most successful manager since Frank Chance, because everyone is just sick of his shit.

But the more dispiriting Cubs stuff has been a parade of scandal and an accretion of generalized rich people mania thrust into public display.  If there's been a single thing the Cubs have committed to in the offseason it is disingenuous apologies-- those from Addison Russell, who remains on the team for some reason, those from the Ricketts family after the publication of Joe Ricketts's bigoted emails.  The Cubs will be donating money and working with groups and raising awareness this season. 

The most recent spate of Cubs e-mails published by Deadspin are less inflammatory.  In this case, they delve into the various shady accounting practices the Ricketts family used to purchase the Cubs, but they also include various embarrassing levels of vaguely Habsburg-level family intrigue where they all sent e-mails to each other instead of threatening to invade the Low Countries.  While Tom Ricketts complained that there was no money left to sign free agents, fans can rest assured that the family was all buying up local railroads to they could all try to destroy each other while sending long email chains where they are all dressed in nineteenth-century sidewhiskers.
"How am I supposed to tell my children that it is not 
their uncle alone who owns the Detroit, Toledo, and 
Ironton railroad, but the entire family has banded together 
to crush the operators, buy out their stock, and divert their 
cargo of precious pig iron to our own depots?" reads one email

And yet, the Cubs still have Javy Baez doing Javy Baez things, a healthy Kris Bryant, and a first game that was just a general annihilation of a tanking Rangers team featuring pitchers named "Kyle Dowdy."  It has been a long, impossibly cold, and miserable winter.  Baseball is an incredibly dumb sport that makes no sense and it one of the best wastes of time ever invented.  Let's hope the Cubs and the odious, bumbling family that owns them don't continue to find reasons to make us forget that.

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