There's an intimacy in this that so resonates with me. I mean, it's impossible to imagine that I wouldn't be charmed by the subject matter alone — a President I greatly admire, plus two NBA players. But this moment is especially great, because I love Derrick Rose's game and I will always appreciate that he OD'd on candy before the 2008 NCAA Final with Kansas. And I admire Joakim Noah's gritty post play and his serious media game. And I love that there's genuine emotion in this shot. It has got a little bit of stagey-ness, but it also feels, like I said, intimate, like the photographer took this photo and emailed it to me, and said: "You'd appreciate this."
The sweet science. (Oh wait, that's boxing). The world game. (Is that soccer?) America's game. (Hmm, maybe that's baseball). Round ball?
It's March, and the madness of the season has overtaken me. Thus, I won't be offended if you are about to click back to Twitter, or your RSS reader.I'll start by not wasting anyone's time complaining about this year's tournament pairings. That path is well-traveled.1 And well it should be! The pairings are outrageous! Kansas was punished! Kentucky, Duke, and Syracuse — they've all got golden tickets to Indianapolis. Right? Right?
For starters, I'm glad I'm not Kentucky
For so many reasons. Let's look at the round two match-ups. Texas and Wake Forest have been terrible — horrible — over the past couple of months. But, they're talented, and each could gel for just long enough to beat anyone in the country, including Kentucky. Is this unlikely? Highly. Is it more likely that Cornell will grind their way past Temple, Wisconsin and Kentucky? Perhaps. But indulge me: Texas actually matches up pretty well with Kentucky, size-wise and talent-wise. I think that it's possible that they could get motivated (ever so briefly) to not be embarrassed by them. Am I picking Texas over Kentucky? Maybe not. Texas coach Rick Barnes is never in danger of out-gameplanning anyone. He's never been accused of having his team ready to play, and his teams are always threatening to underperform. Let's not forget this. Still, I wouldn't want to be a Kentucky fan, not in this tournament, or in any lifetime. Because let me be frank: I don't think I could face a world without reading, without literacy. I just don't think I could do it.
Which reminds me, did you hear that Coach K was born in the year of the Ratfaced Bastard?
Eerie, right? Not sure what his astrological sign is, but I'm relatively sure that all the major media figures kiss its ass.
But Duke didn't get an easy road, either
I know, most people say that Duke has the easiest path: a #4 seed in free-fall after its star blew out his knee (Purdue), and a #2 seed that lost six of its last ten (Villanova). I say: Thank you for noticing, world, but look at the #3 seed: Baylor. This team got punished for playing cupcakes early — Hardin Simmons? Texas Arlington? Southern? Hartford? Coach Scott Drew, c'mon. You asked for your cruddy seed. But then Baylor played a tough conference schedule, didn't lose a game by more than 7 points, and they absolutely light it up (119 points per 100 possessions — 5th in the country). Enough about Baylor; Duke may not even get there. Louisville will give Duke everything they can handle in round 2; perhaps more. Rick Pitino v Coach K, in the second round? Fans' brains might explode. Which coach do I hate more? Minds will boggle.
Back to the Wildcats
Kansas State. Are they good enough to reach the Final Four. Yes. Can they beat Syracuse? Quite possibly. How do you beat Syracuse? You punish the zone. And K‑State has two guys who can do this — Pullen and Clemente. What about the glass? Two more guys: Wally Judge and Curtis Kelly. They can hold their own underneath. KenPom has K‑State ranked 5th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage at 40%. They gather 40% of the rebounds on their offensive glass. That's huge. And they play great defense. Did I mention I wouldn't want to be Syracuse? I wouldn't. Especially because a big guy might be hurt. Or, he might not be. March madness, baybee!
The team that will break my heart: Cornell
Every year I pick a team like this. They're good. They play under control. They've got a system. All the ingredients are there for surprise. Subtext: They played very well against Kansas. Okay, let's face it, they out-played Kansas for 20–25 minutes in the hallowed hall of Lawrence, and they came up short (barely). Texas A&M, Baylor, Colorado, Kansas State and Memphis also played very well against the Hawks, and lost. Subtext: I also have these teams doing well in the tournament. Caveat! Anyway, every year, I pick a team like this to get out of the first round, and they lay an egg. I'm looking at you, Butler team of 2008. This year's heartbreaker is especially obvious to avoid because Temple is a good team who could easily … force the aforementioned egg? To emerge? Anyway, Temple is a great defensive team, though you wouldn't have been able to see any evidence of that against … Kansas! Yes, they lost to the Jayhawks at home. By 32 points.Did I mention that this bracket breakdown was from the point of view who has watched 34 Kansas games, and roughly 20 total other games. Caveat!1 I will offer one suggestion: Why not just factor their media desirability into the RPI? Your team's winning percentage x their opponent's winning percentage x their opponents' opponents' winning percentage x the likelihood that your team will draw a large, rich audience to the Final Four weekend equals their seed. It's obviously a factor in every year's bracket. Last year, North Carolina was invited to do the Tennessee Waltz all the way to Detroit. In other words, they had it easy. In other news, the nation loves them some Tar Heels. It's worth mentioning that advertisers tend to pay more when the Heels are playing. And of course CBS is for-profit enterprise. You get the point. We all do. It's time to be up-front about it.Okay, wait. One more thing. I will post something about the absurd lopsidedness of the pairings:
You want to make marginal No. 1 Duke's road that easy? Seeding the bracket is tough, but come on. The South reeks of a committee that lost the forest for the trees, and Kentucky, Syracuse and Kansas — especially Kansas — will suffer. So much for being the overall No. 1. If we can't reward Kansas for its excellence with something better than this, then the anti-expansion folks' main point is officially moot. The regular season doesn't matter.
It's gotta be the shoes.
The Nike Air Jordan 3 Black Cat … This shoe frightened me when it first came out in 1988. It looked like it had arrived from outer space, which made it absolutely the perfect shoe for Jordan to wear when he was just beginning to dominate the NBA. His game was threatening. These shoes were so sleek, so — it must be said — fierce, that a kid knew that he needed to step up his game in order to be worthy of them. I'm currently totally riveted by the extensive Air Jordan documentation and commentary on the web. For instance, here's a killer 8‑minute video profile of Tinker Hatfield, the genius behind the Jordan line. Nobody in the world can cover my main man, Michael Jordan … Impossible! Impossible! Impossible! Imposs-!
Flow states and flow triggers
Last night, Lynne told a story about a friend who, upon seeing movie star James Franco in the New York subway, experienced a feeling of ecstatic clarity, of time slowing down. I don't recall if Csikszentmihalyi covers celebrity sightings in Flow, but this sounds like a state of flow to me. Wikipedia sums up the flow concept as "a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."Bill DeRouchey recently mentioned the ingredients that, for him, trigger a state of flow: "Brian Eno [ed: I'm guessing his music here, rather than, say, seeing him on the subway], Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, isolation, old rocksteady/ska and (yes) the LOTR trilogy." There was an ensuing #flowstate discussion on Twitter.David Halberstam's book about the late 70's Portland Trailblazers, The Breaks of the Game, contains a nice description of former Blazer Bill Walton's pre-game ritual:
[Walton] loved the day of a game, particularly an important game. It was a time which belonged completely to him, a time pure in its purpose. On the day itself, he did not analyze the game, he had done that the night before, thought about the team and the player he was going against in the most clinical way possible. The night before was the analytical time. The day of the game was different, it was an emotional time. He always took a nap on the day of a game, waking up two and a half hours before the game … This was the time in which he felt the rhythm and tempo of the game, almost like feeling a dance of his own. He played his own music, from the Grateful Dead … and the music helped, it flowed through him and he thought about the tempo he wanted to set and how he could move. He would sit in his home or his hotel room in those hours and actually see the game and feel the movement of it. Sometimes he did it with such accuracy that a few hours later when he was on the court and the same players made the same moves, it was easy for him because he had already seen it all, had made that move or blocked that shot. He loved that time, he had it all to himself, he was absorbed in his feel for basketball.
An ingredient to Walton's secret sauce: The Grateful Dead. In the same jam family, I would say, as Bill's Phillip Glass go-to, Koyaanisqatsi.All of which of course made me think of my own flowstate triggers. The more I think about it, though, my most reliable trigger is running, but a glass of water and the Baseball Encyclopedia also can do the trick. Music is not as essential to me; sometimes silence is better, sometimes I need some Animal Collective. For Reverend Green is pretty reliable.
The Bilastrator has coined a new term: "Game pressure." During last weekend's Kansas-Tennessee game, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas repeatedly said that Kansas players were feeling "game pressure" when they stepped to the free throw line. Game pressure? As opposed to … practice pressure? As opposed to other kinds of pressure that you'd feel during a big game? Or a nationally-televised game? Game pressure? That's the best that you've got? Now, I was going to let this go, because I think I know what he means: "Game pressure" sounds like a specific kind of pressure that can't be replicated outside of a game. Young teams, perhaps, are particularly vulnerable to it because they haven't been in as many … games. Anyway, I was going to let it go until Bilas referred to Kansas guard Sherron Collins as "Lawson-esque" (as in North Carolina guard Tywon Lawson) and then predicted that Tyler Hansbrough will again be the national player of the year.
You mean Lawson is "Collins-esque," right?
Where was Lawson in the Final Four? I'll tell you: He was getting killed by Collins. If Collins played in the ACC, he'd be getting compared to Chris Paul. (I think he's more like Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson). On that note, I hope that Bob Knight is going to break up the ACC-loving commentary cabal at ESPN. From the couple of games I've seen, he is made for TV. And he speaks to basketball fans, not just fans of the ACC. He's not afraid to say unpopular things; not a surprise. He's also likely to compare current players to non-ACC players (such as his Indiana players from the 70's), and he's completely at ease in dissing other talking heads. Is there some way that I can get his commentary on every game? Please?
Aldrich ruled Hansbrough in the Final Four. "But he just works so hard." Other athletic centers rule him regularly. "He doesn't take possessions off." The argument against him being player of the year is so strong; it seems almost silly to carry it out. Photo: Getty Images
I've got no real beef with Psycho T, as Hansbrough is known, but he is not the best player in the country. How could he be? Whenever he plays against anyone big and athletic, he gets killed. Yes, he brings it every night; yes, he leaves it all on the court. Dickie V loves it. All the older commentators love it. Who doesn't love a kid who plays hard every minute he's on the court? I love it. He's like Nick Collison. Nick Collison was awesome, but he was not the player of the year, was he? Would anyone argue that he was, other than hopeless Kansas loyalists? He was a good player on a great team. Like Hansbrough, now. Collison's problem was that he didn't play for the most visible program in the most over-hyped conference in the country. If Hansbrough played at Texas, he'd get compared to Collison all the time, and he'd be the feel-good choice for the Naismith. If only.
Kevin Garnett / What can you say now?
Two things: (1) How awesome would it be to play on KG's team? [Don't ask Big Baby that question]. Still, what if KG worked in your office? He could walk the halls, pumping people up, bringing everyone into pre-meeting huddles — one-two-three-UBUNTU! — and he could remind people that it's about the little things, remind them that things are getting better and that they just need to hold it together a little longer for the title run (or the final design deliverable, in my case). Seriously, how rare is it that an athlete is so insanely gifted and so deeply, outwardly passionate? I'll tell you what: He would give Terry Tate a run for his money in the office athlete department. [The pain train is comin]. And, (2) Someone needs to create an iPhone app or an audiobook or something that blends the inspirational wisdom of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights with KG's extemporaneous passion. That would be technology that I could use. (Okay, three things.) (3) Whoever made this commercial is a genius. It's just documentary-ish enough to give you a sense of the entire arc of the season; it really brings out the grind, how long KG spends saying the same stuff again and again; and it ends in just the right way: "What can you say now?" Nothing. You can't say anything. Actually, you could say one other thing: "Anything is possible!"
The future of reading / A reading list
I love reading, and I've been thinking a lot about how technology is affecting the way that we read now and in the future. I keep thinking about something Sven Birkerts said in a 1998 interview with Harpers: "If you touch all parts of the globe, you can't do that and then turn around and look at your wife in the same way." [PDF] Of course, one could be turn around and look at one's wife in a more informed, more educated way, but that's not the way he sees it. I share this anxiety: I love reading the New York Times on my phone, but I can't help but sense that something will be lost if all printed matter moves in this direction.
In August 1995, Harpers Magazine conducted a round table discussion with Wired's Kevin Kelly, author Sven Birkerts, the Well's John Perry Barlow, and Mark Slouka. The results were condensed in the magazine [PDF], and the conversation outlines the two ideologies that continue to converse today: Those who believe that the paper incarnation of the book is an irreplaceable arena for the delivery of its content, and those who don't. Birkerts discusses the former in his 1995 book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts sent a shot across the bow in a paper called "Reading at Risk," [PDF]. The researchers surveyed 17,000 people, and they concluded that the future of literary reading is bleak: "Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young."Still, the total number of books sold continues to rise, so is the future really that bleak? The NEA thinks so. It released a follow-on to Reading at Risk called "To Read or Not To Read." This study focuses on young readers, and links the decline in reading to "civic, social and economic" risks.Last spring, Nicholas Carr discussed Google's effect on literary reading in the Atlantic, provocatively titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid." [I discussed this in a blog post at the Cooper Journal called "Dumb is the new smart"]. In it, he interviews a blogger who confesses the following:
"I can't read War and Peace anymore,â€ he admitted. "I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."
The article also sparked a discussion on brittanica.com, collected in a forum called "Your Brain Online." It's got a lot of interesting stuff from folks like Kevin Kelly, Danny Hillis and Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, who thinks that the "unprecedented abundance" of the web will function to break the vise-grip of the "literary world" on culture:
It's not just because of the web — no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so interesting. This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true. The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy's sacred work isn't actually worth the time it takes to read it, but that process started long before the internet became mainstream … The threat isn't that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.
Ursula Le Guin disputes the notion that people have ever read War and Peace. (Well, maybe.)
Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption — whether gloomy or faintly gloating — that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?
The title of her recent Harper's essay pretty well sums up her position: "Notes on the alleged decline of reading." It roars through the various aspects of the state of reading and publishing, quickly turning into a ringing indictment of corporate publishers:
The social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of bestsellers. Publishers get away with making boring, baloney-mill novels into bestsellers via mere P.R. because people need bestsellers. It is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.
On that social note
I was just looking at my beat-up copy of "The Dharma Bums," and I felt a sort Chris Matthews-esque tingle. I bought it during high school at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, and it sparked my fascination with the West Coast, years before I ever traveled here. Would I ever read it again? Probably not. In fact, just now, I could barely read even a couple of pages without feeling like Kerouac was on auto-pilot. But I like the idea that my bookshelf is a kind of externalization of myself, a collection of important influences and expressions. The future of my books appears to be not so different than the present: A combination of talismans, objects of beauty, and points of reference.On the subject of reference, in (wait for it) a Harper's essay called ""A Defense of the Book," William Gass talks about the pleasures of not having the world at your fingertips:
I have rarely paged through one of my dictionaries (a decent household will have a dozen) without my eye lighting, along the way, on words more beautiful than a found fall leaf, on definitions odder than any uncle, on grotesques like gonadotropin-releasing hormone or, barely, above it — what? — gombeen — which turns out to be Irish for usury.
And holy crap, there's a whole lot more Gass at Tunneling. Articles, links, thoughts. I love the Internet.
This guy must be someone.
The guy on the left, in the black hat; the one who looks like he just stepped out of a Coen Brothers movie. He was on the floor during every game of the NBA Finals. Who the heck is he? Anyway, you gotta give him credit for breaking the mold with regard to Finals attire: The braided-leather-cowboy-hat-and-bandanna-around-the-neck combo was unexpectedly effective at getting him noticed, by everyone in my living room at least. (I hope all you stars in your brand-new Lakers hats were taking notes.)
I've got the killer app for the NBA television-viewing experience, something that will melt faces around the world and provide the league with yet another license to print money. (Props to Justin and Zidane who sparked this idea last night as we watched Game 3.)You could call it: NBA 360, or the Courtside Package, or the Real NBA Courtside 360 Package or whatever, but the concept is simple … Arrange some microphones around/above the court, and create a pay TV service that allows fans to hear the trash talk that accompanies every game. Even better: You could eliminate the announcers, and go au naturel: Game trash talk soundtrack, nothing more.
"I feel so misunderstood, KG. Sometimes I just wish the fans could know the real Kobe." [Photo: Stephen Dunn]
David Stern will never go for it, you say? You may be right — today — but Stern is a product manager at heart. His recent crackdowns may seem moral in nature, but they're really efforts to maintain the integrity of the current NBA brand. Of course, certain brands continually change, and some brands are forced to change. (General Motors can't continue to be known primarily the makers of Suburbans and Hummers forever, for instance). Sometime soon, I expect that Stern will do what all good PMs do: Evolve his product and brand to respond to the market.
Why a trash-talk channel, then?
Well, my guess is that people harbor fewer and fewer illusions about what's happening on the court. It obviously ain't Sunday School, as much as the NBA wants you to believe it is. Also, even the slightest peek at the trash talk is fascinating. The one and only time I sat close to courtside — in Toronto, 2003, end of the season, against the Hornets — I heard Baron Davis and Rafer Alston go at it for a few seconds near the sideline and I was stunned: It was deeply personal, and profoundly entertaining. (It's also unrepeatable on a family-oriented blog like this). Curt Schilling sat courtside during Game 2 of the Finals, and he also was strangely compelled by the trash talk:
… About 43 times last night I heard things being said that would have made me swing at someone. These guys talk MAJOR trash on the floor, and the great part is that most of the times I've seen it the guy on the receiving end usually doesn't respond much, if at all, and just plays the game, schooling the guy who feels like he needs to talk to make his game better.
Last night KG goes to the line, Lamar Odom (who I became a fan of last night) is saying "Hey KG why don't you help on the ball down here?â€ Pointing to the paint, and I am guessing he's referencing the fact that KG wasn't down in the paint mixing it up. He says it again, loudly, KG doesn't even acknowledge him, and sinks both. Impressive, total focus.
For the record, I was asking KG the same question from the privacy of my living room.
Anyway, on a philosophical note
For the last 10 or so years, the NBA has been in a sort of conflicted adolescence. Stern makes extreme efforts to manage an outward appearance of normality, but this barely masks the turbulence beneath the surface. He created a dress code, and he enforces strict policies on communication with the media. Meanwhile, everyone associated with the league — fans, players, coaches, etc — knows that this is all window-dressing, and dated window-dressing at that. There is a deeply compelling game within a game going on; why not productize it? There are personalities, feuds, villains, heroes, and so on — why not bring them out, and create a service that people will pay for in the process?
The NBA / Where accountability happens
Mark Cuban is not afraid to talk about the blockbuster trade that wasn't …
[Donnie Nelson, Avery Johnson and I] went back and forth about whether or not we should trade Devin [Harris]. We knew he was a good point guard, with the potential to be amazing. What we didn't know was how long that would take. On one hand, we didn't have enough confidence in him to let him call his own plays, but on the other, he is a one man fast break, his shooting was improving by the minute, he is a good defender and his potential was undeniable. In Jason Kidd, we felt we would get a player that would make it easier for Dirk, Josh, Jet to get open shots. That Avery would no longer have to scream to push the ball, that JK was the best in the business at pushing the ball in the open court. Plus, our rebounding had suffered this year vs last, JKidd is a great rebounder and the presses that had caused us problems, would no longer be a problem.
I buy that. For all of Devin Harris's virtues, he's still one of those guys who has very obvious limitations — never going to be a good rebounder, effective at getting in passing lanes but never going to be a great defender, only going to get slower, didn't seem to be progressing in a basketball smarts sense (i.e., needing to constantly be reminded to push the ball upcourt). I didn't think it was a bad trade, really, but I love that Cuban goes on to talk through his rationale in what appears to be an open and honest way …
It wasn't an easy call. Between AJ, Donnie and I, we would change our minds by the minute. I don't think there is any doubt that the pressure and closeness of the Western Conference race had something to do with our decision making process. In my mind, this season was becoming analogous to the most agonizing season I had been through, the 04–05 season. We were having the same home vs road record delta, multiple players asking to be traded and even more internal tension about our lack of consistent performance than we had in 04–05.
Speaking of that "internal tension," Cuban goes on to discuss another elephant in the Mavs' room …
I also know what I learned from Nash leaving. As great an offensive coach as Nellie is, Nash wasn't playing at MVP levels with us. A change of scenery and coaches and system, some payback motivation and he became a very, very deserving 2 time MVP.
Aside from the implied (or inadvertent?) dig at Nellie's "failure" to get the best out of Nash, this approach makes a lot of sense to me. There are obvious precursors to it, in addition to Nash's renaissance in Phoenix — Webber to Sacramento (much younger than Kidd, of course), Shaq to Miami (a little younger than Kidd), maybe Barkley to the Suns and Walton to the Celtics (different situations, but similarly positive effects). Anyway, whether any of this is accurate, true, or whatever, I appreciate that Mark Cuban is saying it. He clearly feels accountable to the fans, and he's leaving it all on the court in a PR sense.