The Second Round

So this is the most amazing picture of Steph Curry I could find. He looks like he’s 14 and is wearing the execrable late-90’s to mid-00’s Golden State Warriors uniform. And yet this poorly dressed juvenile might be one of the best five players in the NBA right now. Sure, his defense is suspect (at best). And yes, his ankles seem to be made of overcooked linguine. And I’ll even grant you that some of the passes he tries to thread to unsuspecting big men are downright stupid. But he’s probably the best shooter I have ever seen. I say this as someone who’s been a Steve Nash fan since watching him play in Toso Pavillion for Santa Clara University.

I get chest pains when I start thinking about the series of fortunate events that had to play out in order for the Warriors to get where they are now. Hasheem Thabeet AND Jonny Flynn AND the once-good Tyreke Evans (in addition to a few talented players–Griffin, Harden and Rubio) had to get picked in order for Curry to drop into the Warriors’ lap. The team had to trade Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, a center who was coming off one of the worst injuries I have ever seen (and what has turned out to be a string of awful ankle injuries too). They had to tank just enough last year to hang on to a lottery pick in this last year’s draft, which turned into the poised (and I think star-in-the-making) Harrison Barnes. They had to decide not to completely fold when David Lee tore his hip flexor. And they had to get lucky in hiring a coach with no experience, who just happens to be really well-suited for the job. And all of this had to happen in the wake of decades of ineptitude, terrible luck, and felonies committed by team personnel.

So forgive me if I gloat a little. The last few years have been an embarrassment of riches for Bay Area sports fans, but the Warriors succeeding might be even sweeter than the what the Giants and Niners have done. The Warriors will likely get housed by the Spurs, but I really don’t care. We will get to see Steph Curry shoot for at least another four games. Good enough.

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Saturday Links

A collection of ways to distract yourself from your friends and lovers this weekend.

  • Be sure to check out Kobe Bryant’s unintentionally hilarious Facebook screed that he wrote while hopped up on painkillers after tearing his Achilles tendon in a game against the playoff-bound Golden State Warriors. My personal favorite line is “This anger is rage,” which sounds like the title of a Sharon Olds collection.
  • If you enjoyed watching Peep Show by yourself last weekend, I suggest you follow it up by ripping through Whites, another English comedy about the hilariously inept. It ran for only six episodes, but each one is brilliant. It stars a bunch of people you might recognize from other shows (Sherlock, The IT Crowd Peep Show, Jonathan Creek), and it was written by Peep Show‘s Super Hans!
  • Are you an aging hipster who decided not to go to Coachella because the thought of being out in the desert for three days surrounded by twenty-year-olds is revolting? Fair enough. However, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the music. YouTube is running live feeds of many of the acts all weekend. It’s like being there without all the dust and vomit. 
  • These articles aren’t exactly new, but Steven Hyden’s “Winners’ History of Rock and Roll” series at Grantland is fantastic. You may not like the bands he profiles (Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Metallica, Linkin Park, and The Black Keys), but the fact that they all became and remain popular has something to tell us about the popular art marketplace over the last forty years. Not everybody loves a winner, but at least we remember them.

InVincible

I long ago quit arguing with people who think that watching/playing/knowing anything about professional sports is dumb, just like I long ago quit arguing with people who think that professional sports are more important than books, film, painting, politics, and all the other stuff that gets repped on Arts & Letters Daily. If I did still argue with the former group of boring dweebs, I would just repeat, “Vin Scully Vin Scully Vin Scully Vin Scully.” I would keep telling my interrogator to go listen to that man call five minutes of an LA Dodgers game. To not even look at the TV if they couldn’t stand it. To just keep the volume on low. To use a radio if they want to feel good about not buying into high-def capitalist bread-and-circuses. To just listen.

Here is Vin Scully in 1964, looking like he’s ready for Don Draper to polish his shoes (because VS is a real person who exists in the actual world):

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Now it’s 2013 and we have Twitter and wi-fi and stuff, and he is still going way more than strong. When he started calling Dodgers games, the team played in Brooklyn and Harry Truman was president; at 85 years old, he still calls games by himself: no second or third commentator in the booth, as is the case with almost every professional sports broadcast on earth. Just hours and hours of a fundamentally slow-paced game, with one guy working to keep you interested, and game after game, year after year, he remains the most compelling, mellifluous, learned, humane, quietly swaggy voice in American sports.

See, his astonishing longevity aside (85!), Scully’s style (it is hard not to write “Vin’s,” because that is what any baseball fan would say when talking about him) of broadcasting is what makes him an honest-to-God cultural treasure. Most sports talking heads are idiots. Anyone who has ever suffered through Tim McCarver (baseball), Jon Gruden (football), or–ugh–Reggie Miller, the congested, brittle ex-jock who stinks up TNT broadcasts (basketball), can attest to that. But even if the sports commentariat weren’t clogged with the mental equivalent of Applebees franchises, the  intensely tan, blow-dried Scully would still reign.

This has a lot to do with the pace of baseball, which you might call a tense languor punctuated by moments of fierce geometric action. Someone who can tell compact stories and make perceptive observations but who also knows when to shut up is priceless for a baseball fan with a functional brain.

First of all, he expertly handles the basic structural aspects of a baseball telecast. That is, he continually provides contextual information a viewer might enjoy or need (like where on the field a player’s hits tend to land, or how double plays work) and crucial narrative guidance: the man’s between-innings spiels are often pithy masterpieces, and he can even make an ad for Sprint sound dignified.

More broadly, his rhetorical style and range of knowledge are informed by a kind of open-minded, good-hearted humanist curiosity about the world that is increasingly rare in narcissistic, smartphone-addled America. Scully might relay an anecdote about Arnold Palmer’s favorite clubs, eulogize some knuckleballer from the 1930s, paraphrase Keats, make a weird comparison between hitting a baseball in cold weather and punching a wall, or wax philosophic about tattoos (using puns), but his style is also structured with silent pauses and genuine exclamations of joy. He comes across as a beguiling older neighbor–even if you’re fifty–without mocking, bemoaning, or expressing bitter confusion about contemporary baseball culture. 300-pound Dominican guys with heavy ink don’t spook him: the worst the young bucks incur is a “Whatever gets you through the night” and the trademark chuckle that is hokey but sweet. At the same time, he does not go in for the canned, bombastic masculinity that ruins most broadcasts. (MIKE, THAT’S HOW YOU HIT IN THE N-F-L!)

He links midcentury coastal America with 2013 Los Angeles, for fuck’s sake. Samuel Johnson says that the worst thing a writer can do to hir audience is bore them. If you are a baseball sophisticate, Scully does not ever bore you, and he usually teaches you something new about the game and its history; if you’re a newbie, he won’t lose you. He sounds like baseball.

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This can’t go on forever. It probably won’t go on for much longer. I’m not even a Dodgers fan. I root against the Dodgers much of the time. When Vin goes–whether he retires before dying or not–I will cry some. Not kidding.

Long Drive

John Updike writes somewhere that sports are a rational, justifiable waste of time.  (Spoken like someone who was a huge NBA fan.)  I would cite the actual sentence, but the piece it’s from is somewhere deep in a Collected Essays, Vol. 8 or whatever, and I don’t feel like hunting for dog-ears.  This isn’t a scholarly blog anyway.   Got a feeling y’all wouldn’t want footnotes.

There are no dumb sports.  Except for golf—golf is a dumb sport.  I don’t say this just because I find it astonishingly dull.  There are broader reasons to dislike the game.  First, it is an environmentally destructive one.  By this I mean that, for all the pretensions of its new “green” landscape engineers, golf is a huge waste of space that requires the conversion of existing, functional ecosystems into heavily managed (think of all the lawn mowers and herbicide . . . ), entertainment-oriented, homogeneous, artificialized environments.  Shaved Bermuda grass replaces deer and wetlands and herons and cacti and what have you.  As such, the golf industry is a coeval of the big-box stores, suburban subdivisions, gas stations, and ugly highways which have metastasized across the U.S. since World War II.  Second, it is, socioeconomically speaking, a proud register of divisions within industrialized Western societies which those societies like to deny: clubs and green fees are pricey, and so only relatively privileged people, most of them white, can afford to indulge.  There’s a reason American presidents must pretend to like golf; and I suspect that one of the reasons Barack Obama makes so many middle-aged white voters uncomfortable is that he doesn’t love the links.  Golf isn’t like basketball (the President’s preferred sport), which poor people can play because all you need is a ball, a hoop, and some flat space.  It ain’t gonna colonize the South Bronx.

S0 I guess it makes a kind of evil sense that someone has finally built a golf course in the Amazon basin.  It’s in a remote area of Peru that the course’s website—I can’t believe its URL wasn’t already taken by someone with a sense of humor—calls the “last outpost of civilization.”  Evocative, eh?  The company that runs the place is working hard to convince prospective visitors that the course is perfectly integrated with its natural surround, that it may in fact be totally natural!   There are boas in the sand traps and piranhas in the water hazards.  And native trees along the fairways.  And colorful nature reserves and indigenous peoples nearby.

To be fair, the course was hacked out of “second-growth” forest, which means land that had already been slashed-and-burned by people out to get valuable old-growth rain-forest lumber and (temporarily fertile) farmland.  Surely this will speed its recovery.

I can’t decide if this exemplifies reductio ad absurdum or ad nauseam.

-TGR

Reason Not the Need

You may have heard that last week Lebron James made a hugely public decision about where to play basketball for the next half-decade.  Like a lot of sports fans, I was initially repulsed by how James handled his free-agency meditations.  One would think somebody so adept at navigating the media would have realized that buying up an hour of primetime on the largest sports network in North America makes you look like a dick.  (And during the World Cup!  And there were kids ranged behind him!)  Then, during the proclamation itself, I felt more sympathetic: Bron-bron looked worried and exhausted as he announced he’s going to play for the Miami Heat, and while the sentimentalist in me would have liked to have heard a bit more treacle about how “the fans in Cleveland are great and stuff, etc.” (Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ owner, went hilariously bonkers over James’ apparent indifference), the guy was clearly agonized about something.

The sports commentariat has been yelling about The Decision for a week now.  As you might suspect, the debate is suffused with plenty of sentiment and practiced, pious outrage; a Google search and some reading will remind you that most sportswriters are sanctimonious wangs.  But there have been some good off-the-cuff pieces on James.  This one, published by Deadspin, argues that The King is not, in fact, a selfish vampire, that for all his obnoxious celebrations of himself (including that stupid nickname) he still gave seven years of marvelous on-court work to a consistently mundane team based in a cold, depressing Rust-Belt city before deciding he’d rather make less money and live in Miami and win a championship than spend the rest of his prime in the same shitty area he grew up in.  Imagine being yoked to whatever dull, corny town you were raised in . . . . Centered on James—a grown-ass man who can make his own decisions—the article is nonetheless primarily about how most of us have learned to evaluate public figures based on how they market themselves rather than on whatever real merits or skills they possess, even when we are evaluating someone as obviously, amazingly gifted as Lebron James.

Look to Bill Simmons (nom de plume The Sports Guy) for a more critical—and also typically sententious—reaction to James’ tactics.  Before turning things over to the otiose comments of his boring readers (it’s one of his lame “mailbag” posts), TSG asserts that James doesn’t have the necessary competitive psychopathology to win a championship like Jordan, et al. did.  We’ll see.  King is only 25.

After that you’ll probably want to wash up with some Charles Pierce, the splendid Boston-based writer who is always articulate and sane about sports even though he’s passionate about most of them, and who has the touch for acid skepticism that never becomes cynicism.  Scroll down through his blog and catch the thoughts on Lebron.  Really, you should be reading this guy every morning.  You’ll feel better.

-TGR

Hat Rules

The golden age of the fashionable American male hat has been over for a long time.  Sorry, nostalgists.  By “fashionable,” I mean hats that are plumage, and which aren’t worn as a necessary part of one’s work (e.g. farmers still wear hats, so do construction workers, as do baseball/softball players).  For a while there, every prole got to have something that used to be the prerogative of aristocrats and royals: articles of headwear whose functional assets are secondary to their aesthetic effect.  But by the late 1960s, in the developed West, few young or middle-age dudes from the white-collar and educated classes donned hats when going to work or a party.

As things stand today, if you are under 70 and wear any sort of retro hat—a bowler, a fedora, one of those “newsy” tongue-like woolly things—you look like a dick.  Trust me, you do.  Even hipsters quickly relinquished their fascination with undersized fedoras (R.I.P, 2006-2008), although these do remain popular with entry-level alts.

However, one type of hat has been tenacious.  This is the baseball cap (which needn’t actually bear a sports logo).  Dudes still try to rock it during sit-down dinners.  At the bar.  In class.  Seriously, the other night I walked by Opal (an expensive restaurant in Santa Barbara) and saw a 30s-ish guy wearing a Yankee fitted on a fucking date.  Even a Red Sox cap would not have been OK at all.  This indecorous dorm-life shit has got to stop.  I love baseball caps in moderation.  But there need to be some contemporary guidelines.  Think I’ll volunteer to write some.  And since I don’t feel capable of theorizing female hat rules, I will restrict my comments to my gender.  Here are 12 tenets worth considering:

1.) If you are under 23 years of age and/or an undergraduate in college and/or terminally ill, congratulations.  Wear one all you want.  Otherwise the following rules apply.

2.) No caps at work, unless you have a job where a cap is immediately useful (i.e. construction or professional baseball).

3.) If you are sitting down and eating at the same time, you may not have a cap on.  A female family member should have told you this anyway.

4.) You really shouldn’t wear a cap to a party, unless said party is outside on a sunny day or taking place during a rainstorm.  Otherwise, Spaceship You emits a spectrum of bro-vibe which doesn’t entice most women, not even young ones from California.

5.) Even if you are under 23 and in college, you can’t wear any cap to my classes.  Not even a Sox cap.  Sorry, bro, but I already let the sweatpants & surfboard pass.

6.) Caps may be worn to sporting events whether you are a participant or an observer.  Same goes for outdoor concerts, but be aware that caps still aren’t considered very hip, so if you’re wearing one in Prospect Park or wherever don’t expect the girl with the Lisa Simpson tattoo to come strike up a conversation.

7.) NO NEW-ERA FITTED CAPS FOR ANYONE OVER 30.  Not even if you aren’t white.  Grown men should confine themselves to unstructured fitted caps like this one:

8.  If you wear glasses you look better in a cap than a guy who doesn’t (at least according to a girl I once dated).  Get some fake lenses if you want to tart up your style.  I also suggest a blazer.  Counterintuitive, I know.

9.  If you are venturing outside within an hour of waking up, you may wear a cap.

10.  Caps are (sort of) OK while running errands.

11.  You are not allowed to own more than 5 caps.

12.  Baseball caps are cooler than basketball caps, which are cooler than football caps.  This rule applies only to the aestheto-cultural appeal of the cap, not to the sport itself.

13. Don’t make rules about stuff like caps.  What are you, illiterate?

-TGR breaks these rules all the time

The Weekend’s Difficult Men (Man #3): Kobe Bryant

I have never liked Kobe Bryant much.  A big part of this feeling is jealousy, from watching the Lakers establish a dynasty in the 2000s.  I also don’t like how he sticks his lower jaw out late in close games.  I dislike the goofy arm tattoo that he got in the middle of his career.  I hate how he jumps into defenders to draw fouls (just like Jordan).  How he whines to the refs all the time (though to be fair, most stars do that).  He’s not charming like Shaq or Lebron.  He grew up privileged, living in Italy while his dad played pro ball there.  And what’s with switching jersey numbers mid-career?  That’s lame.  Isn’t it also bad luck?

But Bryant has won four championships.  He is a great player.  Paradoxically, this is (for me) the least impressive thing about him, at least if you take “greatness” to be an indivisible whole.  Instead, it’s particular aspects of his court genius which are the reason I grudgingly concede how amazing Kobe is.  I especially dig his grittiness–not the silly performances of it (e.g. sticking his jaw out and grimacing like a terrier), but the long, fundamental, undeviating history of it, his almost maniacal desire to win.  Anyone with that kind of dedication to any calling is admirable, even if they are arrogant pricks.

Dude plays almost every game in the regular season.  And he’s played a fuckton of games.  Kobe entered the league at 18, and not only have many of his teams gone deep into the playoffs, but he has frequently played international ball.  He’s got the legs of a 36-year-old.  By the time this year’s playoffs came, Bryant had a fractured finger, a bum knee, and some kind of arm injury (I think).  Nevertheless he played a solid series against the legitimately terrifying Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have gorgeous game, and they’re only going to get better), who can run the hell out of anybody, especially a relatively older team like the Lakers.

I figured this was Dien Bien Phu for the Lakers, who are a fine squad, but with a shallow bench that would hobble them against a team like the Suns or the Cavs; thought it was the year the wave rolled back, the empire lost its colonies, the year Lebron and the Cavs became the next dynasty, and so on.  And when Kobe threw up that difficult falling jumper from the right baseline at the very end of Game Six, with the Thunder leading by one and about to force Game 7, and it rattled off the rim, I really figured LA was done.  They blow a last-shot opportunity like that, and there is no way they have the vigor to win Game 7, even if it is at home in Los Angeles.  Then Nick Collison just stood there as Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ fantastic Spanish center, grabbed the rebound and put the ball back.  Lakers win.  Kobe, you are winding down.  This is probably the last great year of your career.  It’s almost Jordan-with-the-Wizards territory.  But I will not bet great sums of money against you. Got some fight in you yet, don’t you?

Go Jazz.

-TGR