Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Brazil, Part II

Sunday, August 24, São Paulo, Brazil

  • Departing from the thrilling taxi ride described in my previous post, we get to John-Mark’s apartment shortly before Dani arrives with her parents and Mary-Ann, a close family friend of the Davidsons, whom Dani had met at the airport. Despite the language barrier, Dani’s sweet parents make me feel welcome. She explains to her dad that I’m JM’s best friend, and he places his hand on JM’s shoulder, then pats mine, as if to say, “If you’re a friend of his, you’re a friend of ours.” Warm, friendly people.
  • Only hours later do I realize I forgot to kiss Dani’s mom on the cheek, as is the custom in Brazil whenever greeting a lady. Damnit! I went over and over that in my head the last few weeks. Rookie mistake, I guess.
  • I feel so invigorated by the weather. All the windows and the sliding glass door to the balcony are open, a strong breeze filling the apartment with freshness. A welcome and rejuvenating change from the stuffiness of a 10-hour flight. The sun is shining, the sky pristine.
  • From the balcony one can see a beautiful, bronze-domed cathedral a few streets over.  The streets are constant activity, cars zipping and horns honking without pause. The high-rises are mostly grey or beige, some in seeming ill-repair. Trees crowd much of the space between buildings. It’s a mix of architectural beauty and blandness, urban hustle and nature I’ve not seen before. Definitely a different place.
  • Off to lunch. John-Mark has been raving to me for months about how good the restaurants are in São Paulo, and to start things off, we’re going to his favorite place. Segredos de Minas. On the way there he explains the cuisine is similar to southern food. Beans, rice, pork, and a type of green vegetable similar to collard greens are all staples. I’m aiight with this.
  • The first item we order is garlic bread. Aaaannnnd, I’m sold. Bread is perhaps my favorite food. And I dare say this is the best bread I have tasted. Golden-crisp on the outside, dripping with butter and just the right amount of garlic in the middle; it is a wonder. I want to pick up the plate full of two small loaves, cradle it in my arms, screech at the others at my table like the ape-men at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, then run to a corner and squat down over the bounty with my back turned to the rest of the restaurant, feverishly inhaling yet somehow savoring each heavenly slice.
  • In an incredible display of personal restraint, I do not do this.
  • Soon the meal arrives. In addition to the aforementioned staples, there is also a delicious cut of steak with plenty to go around, and there is my new food obsession, mandioca (pronounced man-jee-ohka, I think). Mandioca is a distant cousin to the french fry, only thicker, less greasy and tastier. It is essentially fried yuca, a potato-like root. It is essentially delicious. And it is essentially not found anywhere but Brazil. I am essentially unhappy about this.
  • Our order consists of 4 entrees. There are 6 of us. We walk away with three containers of leftovers. They feed you here, folks. 
  • After a lunch like that, naps are in order. I finally get some shut-eye around 3 PM, a scant 28 hours after the last z’s I caught. Like a glass of cold water after walking across the desert.
  • Sunday evening, JM and I work out in the gym downstairs, then decide on the pizza place around the corner for dinner. He, Dani and I head out, and Dani splits off on her own, walking to a store to buy a frozen fruit/frozen yogurt dish for herself. It takes us about 10 minutes to get the pizza and return to the apartment. About halfway through my third slice, I wonder why Dani hasn’t returned yet. But then, I don’t know how far the store is, or how long it should take, so I don’t say anything. 
  • A minute or two later, John-Mark looks at his phone. “I don’t like how long this is taking her,” he says. The uneasiness in his voice and on his face is unmistakable. It is well past dark. A few brief moments pass. Then, he says sternly, “I’m going down there.” I put down my pizza and stand up as he heads towards the door. He tells me I can just stay in the apartment. “I’m going with you,” I respond flatly. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the social problems in Brazil. Google some statistics if you wish. But I know enough to know that a young woman walking the streets at night, taking a little longer than expected to make it home, is a cause for real concern. And I know the tone of John-Mark’s voice just now is one I have not heard in some 23 years. We take the elevator downstairs and walk out through the two iron gates operated by a security guard at the building’s entrance. 
  • Fortunately, this story is quite anti-climactic. As soon as our feet hit the sidewalk and we turn up the street, there is Dani, not more than a half-block away. Perfectly fine, just an unusually busy night at the store, she says. John-Mark hugs and kisses her, visibly relieved. We return to their apartment and I finish my last slice of pizza before I really think about the possibility that something dreadful could have happened. Despite a few tense moments between the elevator ride and the street outside, my first day in São Paulo has been pretty wonderful. We watch a fun movie around 10 PM and any remnant of tension dissipates. 
  • Before turning in for the night, I have a couple of cigarettes on the balcony, watching the cars buzz by with as little respite in activity as there was in the middle of the afternoon. No brief moments of quiet stillness, a city of nearly 20 million people bustling by in the night. Just go, go, go.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Brazil, Part I: Getting Here

  • Friday night, 6 PM: Pack. I’m an insufferably indecisive person. In the past I’ve spent well over an hour packing for a weekend trip. Just a small bag with a couple of t-shirts, an extra pair of pants and plenty of socks and underwear can take me forever to pull together. Tonight I’m preparing for a 12-day, international trip. From the time I take out a suitcase to the time everything is loaded into my car: 43 minutes. Small victories, people.
  • Friday night, 8:15 PM: Meet my girlfriend, Rachel, in Lynchburg. She lives in Roanoke, where I forgot my tux hanging in her closet Thursday night. Her driving to Lynchburg to bring it to me saves me probably an hour and a half of driving, and takes up the bulk of her Friday night. Thanks, baby.
  • Friday night/Saturday morning, 12:03 AM: Arrive at the home of John-Mark’s parents, Don and Audrey. He’s not there. His company’s annual staff party was tonight; he must have stayed a little later than planned. I think about the fact that in a few minutes I’ll see my best friend for the first time in 6 months. It hadn’t hit me until now. Just like it hadn’t hit me until I pulled into this cul-de-sac that I’m actually getting into a fuckin’ aero-plane tomorrow night and flying to Brazil.
  • Friday night/Saturday morning, 12:15 AM: A cab pulls into the cul-de-sac. JM pays the driver and saunters out. We’ve been half a world apart for 6 months. We don’t say hello. We just start talking. Within moments we’re keeled over with laughter.
  • Saturday, 3:30 PM: Don and I are taking JM to Reagan National Airport for his connecting flight to Charlotte. It’s raining buckets and traffic is crawling. As it drags on 15, 20 minutes, I start cursing myself for coming along when it wasn’t necessary. I could have taken a nap. Well, we should get back by 4:30, anyway. Our ride shows up at 6:30. Plenty of time for a quick nap.
  • Saturday, 5:55 PM: I’m glad I got to talk to Rachel one last time before leaving, but then I putzed around for a long while and now it’s 5 to 6. Oh well, that’s okay. I can still lie down and close my eyes for 20 minutes. Those short, deep-sleep naps are the best anyw--
  • “Stu, our ride is here!”
  • “Shit.”
  • Saturday, 6:10 PM: Even though everything was packed and ready to go long before leaving, I of course found a way to freak out on the way to the airport, worried I might be missing something. I got over it by repeatedly telling myself, “You’ve got your passport, you’ve got money, you’ve got the clothes on your back. Anything else you can do without for a week. This is real now.”
  • Saturday night, sometime after 10:05 PM: We take flight. It continues to amaze me that this is possible. Most people I’ve known in my life are not terribly smart, and most of the people I come into contact with every day are not that great at their jobs. How did we ever come up with this flying thing? How is it possible that we figured that shit out?
  • Saturday night/Friday morning: I’m struggling. The first couple of hours were fine, but from about the 2-hour mark to 6.5 hours in, it is brutal. It only becomes bearable when HOLY SHIT - I finally figure out how to recline my seat. It is some form of black magic - rather than pushing the button and leaning back, one has to push the button a little bit harder and lean back. Many people think I am smart. I’m not sure I am one of those people.
  • Sunday, approximately 8:40 AM (Brazil’s time, 1 hour ahead of EST): Standing in the São Paulo airport, wearily waiting by the luggage carousel, a feeling of great unease comes over me. A feeling of differentness. I've traveled to a few other foreign countries before, but never one where I feel quite so out of place. In New Zealand, the language is the same. In Europe, there is some shared cultural heritage, even if from long ago. Here in South America for the first time, I feel totally strange. It is a despairing moment, briefly, but then I realize, this feeling of discomfort is a good thing. It is because of this feeling that it will be a good experience. I could be sitting at home right now, watching television or playing with my cat or mowing my lawn or sleeping, perfectly content. It's been too long since I pulled myself out of that comfort zone and saw the world from a new place. Standing in the São Paulo airport I feel a sense of dread that nevertheless I know will give way to something greater. What I don’t know is how soon it will.
  • Sunday, approximately 8:55 AM: “It’s not a cab ride until you think you’re not gonna make it,” John-Mark says as our taxi driver whips between two cars at high speed, changing lanes without much regard for any kind of rules other than how to get where he has to go as quickly as possible. I’m usually a very nervous passenger, tensing up and reflexively pressing my foot down on the floorboard whenever riding with someone who drives a little recklessly, follows too close, or waits too long to brake. But buzzing through heavy traffic after a long, sleepless flight, I watch calmly as our driver weaves between two cars, missing each by a distance of no greater than 8 inches, at speeds in excess of 60 and 70 miles per hour. It doesn’t faze me. The driver seems in complete control and his vehicle rides smoothly. I am relaxed and unafraid. Hell, I’m enjoying it. And suddenly I feel much differently than I did standing in the airport. Maybe it was feeling the warm winter air smack against my face. Maybe it was seeing how comfortable JM appears in talking with people, how at ease he is in this place so foreign to me. Maybe it was the adrenaline-pumping cab ride. Or maybe it’s just that every airport is fucking depressing. Whatever it was, it was a quick turnaround. Weaving through traffic, I feel ready for the sights and the food and the people and, yes, the danger. I feel excited. I feel glad to be here.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Search for Patch: A Heroic Mission

Around 10:50 PM Monday night, while watching the college football national championship game at my parents’ house with my dad, I went to check on my mom’s two cats in the garage.  Normally they are outdoor cats, but with the temperature in the low teens and dropping, and winds of 12-15 MPH blowing throughout the night, mom had prepared a bed for them in the garage - a cushion, heating pad and towel placed atop a wooden bench.  When I checked in, one of the cats, Lexi, was there snuggling contentedly; the other, Patch, was not to be seen.  Apparently he had darted out at some point when the garage door was opened, and no one noticed.  I stepped outside and called for him for several minutes.  No answer.  I grabbed a can of wet food, held it up, cracked it open and pulled back the lid as deliberately as I could.  Surely that deliciously familiar sound would bring him running.  Straining my ears, I thought maybe I could hear a distant, whimpering meow, but I couldn’t be sure.  So, I called out to Patch a few more times.  Nothing.

Alright then, I thought, into the cold I go.  There’s a kitty out there that needs rescuing, and the mission isn't going to accomplish itself.  Let's do this, Smith.

It was my chance to become a hero.

I went inside and suited up.  Hoodie, scarf, heavy coat, leather gloves, etc.  Once I found a flashlight, I was ready to venture into the depths of the menacing wintry night.  As I headed for the door again, mom - concerned for my safety, as any decent mother would be at a time like this - pleaded with me, “Just fifteen minutes in weather like that and you can get frostbite!”

Immediately, the words of the immortal Han Solo rang in my head: “That’s right, and my friend,” or, in this case, Patch the Cat, “is out there in it!”

With that, I swung open the door and set out in the face of sub-zero chills, undaunted, prepared to capture my own piece of glory.  At that moment, invigorated by the rush of cold night air, I felt like I possessed the strength of Hercules, the bravery of the 300 Spartans, and the quietly dignified leadership style of Robert E. Lee.  

Oh, the night was angry!  The wind was merciless!  The cold was… freaking cold!  Anyway, by the time I’d put on all those extra clothes and other warmth accessories, found a flashlight and walked back outside, Patch had finally come near the garage again.  I just had to put him inside and shut the door.  

But that's not the point!  The point is I was ready and willing to do whatever it took.  I mean, again, 'whatever it took' turned out to be lifting a slightly overweight adult cat and transporting him into a nearby garage, but be that as it may, Patch the Cat is alive and well today.  Nobody can deny that fact.

I'm a freaking hero.

The End.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lakers Notes 11-6-2013: Oh, What a Year!

Last night, after watching about an hour’s worth of coverage of the Virginia governor’s race - which played out pretty predictably, with the Turd Sandwich narrowly defeating the Giant Douche - I turned my attention to more important matters: taking in the Lakers’ fifth game of the regular season and contemplating what it might mean to be a Lakers fan this year.  Some early, irrational optimism quickly gave way to the realization that… err, well, let’s just get into it here. 

(Just before tip-off):  Aaaannnd, I’m depressed.  Good golly is this Lakers starting lineup sad.  Granted, I’m one of the few remaining members of the Pau-Gasol-is-an-elite-level-big-man fan club, but even he’s not a franchise player by any stretch of the imagination at this point in his career.  And the other four starters?  Yeesh.  Steve Blake has been a decent backup point guard for the last few years, which doesn’t say much for the fact that he’s the starting shooting guard on this team.  He’s never played the 2!  Even in college!  Xavier Henry has had some nice moments in the preseason and early days of the regular season, but he’s been a completely inconsequential player his first few years in the league, and one can’t help but wonder if his impressive scoring games thus far have something to do with the fact that, you know, somebody has to score on this team.  As for Steve Nash - he looks like the shadow of Steve Nash.  He moves around and has the same basic form of Steve Nash, but he can’t really do the things that Steve Nash does.  He’ll make a play here and there that looks great, but for long stretches of time he seems to be laboring up and down and around the court.  His defense was sub-par when he was in his prime; now it is downright pitiful.  It hurts to say, but at this point, Nash is what he is: an old man.

And then, of course, there’s Shawne Williams.  In the starting lineup.  This feels like an appropriate time to point out the fact that Shawne Williams was not in the league last year.  The year before?  He was shooting 28% from the floor and struggling to get off the Nets’ bench.  (Cue Charles Barkley: “James Worthy is rolling over in his grave.”)

In spite of all this, I kind of like this team.  Some reasons (in addition to a total lack of rationality):

·         The bench is pretty solid: It’s strange to have such a below-average starting five and a bench that seems - on paper and after some early-season returns - to be a pretty dang competent bunch, at least offensively.  Maybe if the bench players were made the starters, they’d struggle just as much as or more than the starters do against opposing starting talent, but it still feels odd to have bench players who are better at their jobs than the starters are.

·         I still believe Pau can have a big year: It’s a contract year for him.  He has a lot to prove after such an up-and-down year last season, when he battled multiple injuries and struggled to fit in D’Antoni’s system (READ: when D’Antoni stupidly tried to make him a stretch 4).  He will get the ball a ton until Kobe returns, and will be the unquestioned second option even after Kobe returns.  He had a few games late in the season last year in which he looked like his old, skillful, gracefully dominant self.  And hey, we’re still only a year and change removed from the 2012 Olympics, when Pau pretty much ran roughshod over the US in the gold medal game.  I believe in Pau, baby!

·         This team has more athleticism and scoring from the wing than in the past several years.  Even if the past few versions of the Lakers were better teams, it has been so infuriating the last several years watching the utter dearth of scoring from the perimeter and/or athleticism on the wings (aside from Kobe, obviously).  Oh how I’ve grown accustomed to shouting “Nnnnoooooo!” every time Ron Artest/Metta World Peace lines up a triple - it's Pavlovian, to say the least.  I wonder if I will still do this even though he now plays for the Knicks.  This year, with guys like Henry, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young, I might lose most of the rest of my hair before the season’s over on account of some terrible decision-making and shot selection, but at least these guys look like NBA athletes.  **UPDATE: I wrote this paragraph in all seriousness last night as the game was starting.  Only today do I realize how horribly depressing it is.  But I feel like I have to include it here in spite of this.  Or maybe because of it.  Perhaps this should be the Lakers’ slogan for the 2013-14 campaign: “Ladies and gentlemen, at least these guys look like NBA athletes… your LOS ANGELES LAKERS!!!”

·         Lastly: it’s the Lakers.  And it’s the NBA season.  Whatever happens, I’m here for the ride, and happy to be.

(6:36 to go in the 1st quarter): Chris Kaman enters the game.  This somehow comes as a total surprise to me.  I think I want to forget he’s on the team, even if he’s been one of the few effective players early in the season.  He can still score a bit and take up space, but he’s a minus defender, and one of the ugliest basketball players to ever don a jersey.  His decision to shave his head in the age of HD television must have been some sort of sick joke.  Seriously, Chris, you’re scaring children.  Also, me.

(4:10 to go in the 1st): Mavs ball out of bounds underneath the basket.  The inbounds pass goes to an Israeli rookie named Gal Mekel at the top of the key.  Mekel takes two dribbles to his right with Lakers reserve Jordan Farmar guarding him, slowly spins back to his left, puts his head down and drives past Farmar straight down the middle of the lane for a barely-contested layup.

I rewound and watched this play four or five times.  I still don’t know how it was possible.  The Lakers might not have a top-10 defense this year.

(About 0:55 to go in the 1st): Indulge some basketball nerdery.  What happens at this juncture of the game could pretty much serve as the epitaph for the Lakers this year.  (And yes, I realize we’re one week into the season here.)

Dallas brings the ball up the court in a semi-transition opportunity.  Four Lakers are in good defensive position - Kaman guarding DaJuan Blair in the middle of the paint; Farmar guarding Mekel with the ball on the right wing; Nick Young sloughing off Vince Carter on the weak side; Wesley Johnson trailing down the middle of the court before retreating above the top of the key to pick up Dirk early.  Jodie Meeks, however, is aimlessly shuffling down the court between Johnson and Young, not in position to help should Mekel attack the middle from the wing, and really nowhere close to picking up his man (Jae Crowder).

Blair darts out from the middle of the paint to set a screen for Mekel.  When Farmar is overly aggressive in attempting to jump the screen before it is set (lunging to his right, the side from whence the screen is coming), Mekel instinctively eschews the coming screen and dribbles towards the baseline, leaving Farmar chasing behind him.

This forces Kaman to step up and cut Mekel off from taking the baseline, only Kaman is so slow-footed, and his hedge is so over-zealous, he has no chance to recover to his man, Blair.

As Kaman is hedging on Mekel, Blair is immediately slipping the screen he intended to set and darting for the basket.

With Farmar behind him and Kaman frozen in concrete, Mekel sees Blair cutting and neatly whips a one-hand bounce pass to him for an uncontested layup.  Meanwhile, Jodie Meeks is still meandering in the middle of the court, half-interested in what’s going on with the ball, and then at the worst possible moment turning his head completely away from the ball and the action to maybe try and find his man.  By the time Meeks turns back towards the strong side where the action is being played out, Blair is effortlessly tossing in the layup for two (essentially free) points.

Aside from the initial positioning in transition, everything about this defensive play is atrocious on the part of the Lakers.  It involves basketball players that aren’t naturally good defenders playing for a team that has not studied, worked on or talked about how to play basic transition or pick-and-roll defense.  This does not bode well for the season.

(Moments later): Meeks puts up an ugly elbow jumper that yields a long rebound and then a runout by Jae Crowder, who scores a layup with Meeks comically stepping aside to allow the layup, rather than contesting the shot or forcing Crowder to shoot free throws.  I guess Jodie was trying to stay out of foul trouble.  (Total PF for the game: 0.  Yeah, but still.)

(About 8:30 to go in the 2nd): Another complete breakdown on defense against a simple side pick-and-roll occurs - this time brought about by a stupidly over-aggressive attempt at a double-team by Jordan Hill.  The Lakers appear to have no game plan for guarding the pick-and-roll.  Supposedly - and I’ve read this from basketball insiders including opposing scouts and executives - Mike D’Antoni simply does not discuss defense.  Ever.  When your best player is 35 and currently rehabbing a torn Achilles, and your second-best offensive player on the active roster is Nick Young, and your starting point guard is 40 years old, and you’re starting guys at positions they’ve never played in a 10+ year career, AND your coach does not so much as discuss the topic of defense… Well, um, this, this might be a long season.

(Sidenote): As much as I want to believe in the Pau resurgence year, he has really looks off in this game.  He doesn’t seem able to assert himself physically in the post.  His baby jump hooks and sweeping shots around the rim appear to be off, as if he isn’t used to releasing the ball from the distance at which he’s shooting.  He just seems out of sorts.

(First play of the second half): Another pathetically defended pick-and-roll on the right wing, with Gasol making a herky-jerky, half-hearted attempt to seal off a Jose Calderon drive before recovering to Nowitzki at the top of the key, only Pau’s poor footwork leads to him essentially setting a second pick on Nash (who is guarding Calderon).  Calderon therefore comes off the screen (and unintentional second screen) to find about three square miles of open space between the right wing and the hoop.  He attacks the basket and the entire defense collapses on the paint, although Jordan Hill stepping up to stop Calderon just outside the paint, with the other players rotating accordingly, would have been the appropriate response.  Calderon whips the ball out to Shawn Marion on the left wing, who then skips a pass to Monta Ellis in the corner where, after his man (Steve Blake) has lunged helplessly at Marion, Monta is “wide, bless-ed open,” as my middle school coach would say.  Ellis drains a deep two to put the Mavs up 21.

(7-minute mark of the 3rd quarter): The Mavs announcers are wondering aloud if a) the Mavs will get to 100 points by the end of the third quarter, and/or b) every single Maverick will score 20 points tonight.  The second question is posed half-jokingly.  But only half.

(Last few minutes of the 3rd): The Lakers spring to life a bit, trapping and getting into passing lanes on defense, getting a couple of steals, converting on several transition and semi-transition buckets, and closing the quarter down 17 after being down 90-60 at one point in the quarter.  This mini-run was probably as much about the Mavs (inevitably) easing off the gas a tad as much as it was about the Lakers making a legitimate comeback.  But still.

(First play of the 4th quarter): Nick Young starts the fourth with a jumper to cut that once-30-point lead in half.  Could this get interesting? 


(10:00 left in the 4th): The Lakers bench is outscoring the starting lineup, 57-25.  This seems worth mentioning.

(4:44 to go in the 4th): With the score now at 120-95, I find myself doing something I expect to make a habit of this year: falling asleep as the game winds down.

(I don’t remember the time): A Ryan Kelley sighting!  Oh goodness.  Please help us.

As garbage time winds down, the Mavs play-by-play guy states that Kobe’s return will “turn the light back on” for the Lakers.  No it will not.  Not as far as I can see.  This team cannot defend, and apparently the coaching staff is not interested in addressing this issue.  Sure, they can run some nice stuff offensively, even putting on an impressive performance on that end from time to time.  (Note: I’m assuming everyone on the Clippers roster was drunk or stoned on Opening Night).  But a team that doesn’t play defense in this league is a team that doesn’t win in this league.  Maybe they get better when Kobe gets back.  But as far as I can tell, Kobe will not be a remedy for what ails the Lakers.  It’s going to be a long season.


BONUS PREDICTION:  Steve Nash will retire from basketball before the All-Star break.  He still has moments, but overall, he just can’t play at this level anymore.  Too slow, too old.  It’s one thing to give up a half-step to your opponent, which Nash has been doing for years (and making up for with his superior court vision, instincts, basketball IQ, etc.), but the game seems to have passed Steve by.  He doesn’t even look right shooting wide-open jumpers this year, as if he’s startled when he finds himself open and isn’t quite sure how to react.  He’s an all-time great, and of course it’s early, but man, it looks like the game is too fast for him now.  I legitimately felt sorry for him watching this game.  I don’t see how Nash ignores the degree to which he’s fallen off over the last several years, and I don’t think he has too much pride to admit it’s time to hang it up.  So yeah, I think my favorite team’s starting point guard is going to freaking retire before the season’s over.  If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going to gulp down a bottle of Drano.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2013-2014 NBA Preview (Sort of)

The start of the 2013-2014 NBA season is only hours away at the time of this posting.  So first, let me just say, HHHRRRRWWWWAAAAAAHHHHH!  NBA Opening Night.  Best day of the year.

Secondly, I set out to write a blog post with a few observations about what might unfold this year: Five Things to Watch for This NBA Season, that sort of thing.  But the first thing I decided to write about came in at over 1,200 words and I thought, Oh, to hell with it.  Nobody’s reading more than that anyway.  So, here are a few thoughts on an off-court NBA topic for this season.

How Will ESPN’s Studio Show, NBA Countdown, Fare in Its Current Incarnation?

Countdown has undergone a significant makeover in recent weeks, which is nothing unusual - ESPN has struggled to develop a consistent NBA studio show for years.  Changes to this year’s show include, most notably, the loss of Magic Johnson, who decided to step away from the show in order to focus on his various other endeavors (and not because of a power play by Bill Simmons, as was reported at one point), as well as Michael Wilbon, who was not re-signed by the network to remain on the studio panel.

The only continuity between last year’s studio show and this year’s comes in the form of grantland.com columnist and editor Simmons, and former NBA player Jalen Rose. I’m a fan of Rose and especially of Simmons, although I feel the two are somewhat hamstrung on this show, given the restraint they must exhibit - they are, after all, appearing on a Disney-owned media outlet. More on this later.

Newcomers to the Countdown show include longtime SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, ESPN NBA and women’s basketball analyst Doris Burke, former Nets head coach Avery Johnson and NBA lifer Doug Collins.  This won’t, however, be a show over-populated with talking heads, because in addition to the changes in on-air personalities, there will also be a structural change for this year’s edition of the show.  The weekly Wednesday installment of Countdown will feature Burke as a hybrid host/analyst alongside Rose and Johnson.  The Friday and Sunday shows will feature Steele in a traditional studio host capacity, navigating commercial breaks and guiding the basketball discussion that will take place between Collins, Rose and Simmons.

This seems a bit confusing.  Really, the Wednesday show ought to be called something other than NBA Countdown.  It should be its own separate thing.  Only one analyst from the Friday/Sunday show (Rose) will be appearing on the Wednesday show.  And without a traditional host, the dynamic of the Wednesday show will be quite different from that of the weekend editions. 

I’ll tune in for a lot of the Wednesday broadcasts, but I’m most interested in seeing how the Friday/Sunday lineup - with a panel of host Sage Steele and analysts Jalen Rose, Bill Simmons and Doug Collins - plays out.  I think this cast has a chance to be really, really good together.  I also expect this panel, and this structure (traditional host + analysts), to be the one ESPN employs during meaningful playoff games next spring and summer.  Hence, I’m writing about the Friday/Sunday show and not its Wednesday counterpart.

This will be year 2 of Simmons and Rose being on-air together, and they've also had a ton of podcast time that has allowed them to develop great chemistry. Their team previews on the Grantland Channel have been great - insightful, colorful and often quite funny, with several consistently amusing segments. The pairing just seems to work, at least when the two are able to let loose a bit, as they are in the YouTube-aired team previews. Maybe the suits at ESPN/ABC/Disney/Whoever-the-hell-actually-runs-things-at-ESPN will give them a little bit of slack to push the envelope in 2013-14. The “Don’t get fired” running joke is fun, but maybe they’ll be able to actually breathe a little more now that they have significant screen time under their belts.

The addition of Collins feels like a no-brainer.  He’s been around the game his whole life; he has an eidetic hoops memory; and he’s spent a lot of time working in TV, where he comes across as an affable guy that really knows and loves the game.  Also, he’s good for the occasional salty quote.

But the biggest reason to be bullish on the quality of this year’s version of NBA Countdown over last year’s ultimately unsuccessful all-analysts-no-host experiment is the addition of Steele.  The most glaring problem with last year’s show was all the stumbling that went on, whether between segments, coming out of commercial or going to commercial, or the little gaps between comments that oftentimes felt just awkward enough to be distracting.  Putting a bunch of basketball people on a show about basketball and letting them run with it might seem like a great idea, except in this case those basketball people don't necessarily know how to host a television show.  They need a career TV person who’s been reading tele-prompters for years, someone who knows how to prevent the uncomfortable lulls by jumping in with the right question to steer the discussion in a new direction.   Steele is just that: an experienced, competent television anchor - in addition to being a seemingly stand-up lady - and with her providing a steady-handed influence as host, Countdown should run much more smoothly this year.  The TV pro will focus on doing her job, and that will allow the basketball guys to focus on doing what they do best - talk basketball. 

Ultimately, though, chemistry will determine whether NBA Countdown succeeds.  Just like a basketball team, a sports talk show team needs chemistry. Why was Inside the NBA the best studio show in all of sports for 10+ years?* Because the chemistry between EJ, Chuck and Kenny was so great.  Why has PTI been going strong for over a decade, with multitudes of other shows trying unsuccessfully to capture the same magic? Because TK and Wilbon are just so damned good together, and it’s hard to replicate that on-screen rapport. To offer another TV-related chemistry example, compare an episode of Letterman wherein the guest is a Tom Hanks or a Bill Murray or someone of that ilk - someone Letterman clearly has a ton of respect for and has interviewed numerous times - versus an episode wherein Dave is interviewing some bimbo from the latest reality dating show. Big difference.**
So we’ll see if the combination of Steele, Simmons, Rose and Collins clicks.  If so, it should be a really fun show this year. If not, it could be a train wreck. I’m hoping it’s the former, but I’ll be watching either way.

*It’s probably still the best studio show in sports, but adding Shaq to the mix has adversely affected it; Chuck was always the star of the show, but Shaq’s ego won’t allow him [Shaq] to play second banana. In other words, the addition of Shaq has fouled up the show’s chemistry, at least to some degree.

**Okay, fine. The episodes with the bimbos from the dating shows can be great, too, but only when Dave brings it heavy with the snark. Cranky, sarcastic Letterman grilling some poor girl who might not totally understand what’s going on is pretty fantastic television. But still, the must-watch Letterman interviews are the Murrays and the Hankses of the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

All-Time Hypothetical Top Five

I still get a few page views per month on this blog, which means that, incredibly, some poor souls still check in here for updates from time to time.  I find this amazing, considering pandas bone with greater regularity than I blog.  However, 1) some people do, in fact, still check in here, and b) I love nothing more than to engage in totally hypothetical basketball-related discussions and/or debates.  Why this player would have been great in any era, why that team would have beaten that other team from twenty years earlier, how great player X might have been had he never gotten injured... any of that stuff.  I love it.

So, what the hell?  Since some people are still checking in, why not use this platform to expound upon my favorite of all hypothetical basketball discussions:  If you had to pick five guys to play a game with your life on the line, which five players would you pick?  I’ll get started with a few guys I wouldn’t pick, even if I really wish I could.

Honorable Mention

Dennis Rodman - the hardest guy to leave off my list, if only because he was on my list for years, and my favorite part of revealing the list to other basketball geeks was when I got to Rodman, just because nobody could believe I would put a guy who could not shoot or dribble a basketball on the team to play a game for my life.  I loved the passionate arguments and Are you serious right now??? looks it inspired.  And I loved defending my choice to include him on my list.  He’s one of the greatest defensive players of all time, one of the best rebounders of all time, a guy who played with crazy passion and intensity every game, and a great teammate (on the court, at least), if for no other reasons than he played so hard, cared so much about winning, and would never hog the ball on offense (because, again, he could not shoot or dribble a basketball).  I love the Worm and always will.  It broke my heart when he decided to start playing buddy-buddy with Kim Jong-un, because it meant I could no longer wear my “Where Leaving It All On The Floor Happens” t-shirt, which features a picture of Rodman diving to save a loose ball from bouncing out of bounds, selflessly sacrificing his body to save a possession for his team.  Sorry, Worm, I love you, but I can’t be walking around in a t-shirt that glorifies a guy who plays buddy-buddy with a crazy dictator that rules one of the most oppressive countries on earth.  It’s just a rule with me.

Magic Johnson - One of the five greatest players ever, but I don’t feel comfortable having two defensive liabilities on the court (I can handle one, especially with good rim protectors behind him, but not two at the same time - not with my life on the line), and for reasons I will get into, I feel I can do without a point guard on my team.

Scottie Pippen - also used to be on the list; also used to inspire heated arguments, which I relished.  I would love having him on the all-time team for his defensive prowess on the perimeter and his versatility on offense.  I want my all-time team to be a defensive menace, and this guy held the “Most Destructive Defensive Small Forward Ever” belt for a long time.  A long time, that is, until the small forward on my updated team came along.

Shaq/Kareem/Wilt - Three of the best centers ever, three of the top 12 to 15 players ever (depending on how you rate Shaq - Kareem and Wilt are at least top 7), and three guys that almost have to get mentioned in this conversation any time it comes up because of their offensive dominance.  They’re three guys that - in their primes - could basically score at will whenever they touched the ball, and that’s a damned good asset to have on your side when a game for your life is being played.  All really tough snubs, but I’m happy with my choice of center.

Dwight Howard - If you know me, you know this is a joke.  If you don’t know me, um, this is a joke.  Dwight Howard is a joke.  YOU HAVE FUN WITH THAT NOW, HOUSTON.  (Just as an aside, I recently heard a clip from an interview Howard gave upon signing with Houston this summer.  The best part was Dwight describing his only season in LA by saying “I had a great run there.”  So, by Dwight’s standards, a “great run” is bbbaaaaarrrrrrelllllyyyyy making it into the playoffs, immediately receiving an unceremonious ass-whupping in the form of a first-round sweep, and then abandoning ship to join another team.  Again, Dwight considers this a “great run.”  No, seriously, Houston, have fun with that guy.  Real winner there, true competitor.)  (And for the record, I was rooting like hell that guy would bolt this summer.  I’m not bitter as a Lakers fan because Dwight jilted LA.  I’m bitter as a Lakers fan because I had to watch that gutless prima donna for a year, even if he is a really really really good player that would have made the team better this year.  Good riddance.)

Kobe Bryant - In a way, it’s incredibly difficult, and in another way, it’s not even a thought to leave this guy off the list.  He’s my favorite player ever, a basketball hero to me - faults and all - and one of the greatest to ever lace ‘em up, so it’s tough to leave him off, in that sense.  But at the same time, a nod to Kobe would pretty much have to mean a snub for Michael Jordan, because (Captain Obvious alert) there's NO POSSIBLE WAY those two could share the court as teammates.  (I almost feel silly for even writing that.)  And as much as I love the Mamba, well, I mean, let’s not get crazy here.
So those are the also-ran's.  On to the real deal.  Here goes:

My Five

1.  Michael Jordan - I’m thinking 1992ish Jordan.  Around that time he still had the athletic explosiveness that had begun to wane during his second stint with the Bulls (95-98), but he was also a more well-rounded player and probably a better teammate than the guy that was ripping the league to shreds athletically and individually - without achieving a ton of playoff success - in the late 80s.  So, a bit of the best of both worlds - at this point in his career he still had the crazy athleticism, but had started to develop other parts of his game that allowed him to stay dominant past his physical peak (like, for instance, his post game).

2.  Larry Bird - Mid-80s Bird.  What he would bring to the table: clutch shooting, savant-like passing, legendary trash-talking, intensity, decent team defense, if not great individual defense (he’s the one liability I am accepting on my squad that partially precluded my also selecting Magic), off-the-chart basketball IQ, rebounding, mullet.  I don’t know if the “vintage” of Bird I’d take was rocking the mullet.  I’m taking the mid-80s vintage - call it ’86, probably his best season and the best season his version of the Celtics ever had.  But whatever basketball version of Bird I would select, it would have to be cross-matched with the stylistic version of Bird that rocked the mullet.  (Since the hypothetical game we’re discussing includes guys from different eras, we already have the capacity to time travel in this scenario; surely we can work this Bird/mullet wrinkle out.)  Because, I mean, if we’re playing a game where the stakes are life-and-death, and my squad beats you, and one of my guys has a mullet?  Man.  Just, man.

3.  Bill Russell (mid-60s Russell, I’m guessing; obviously I’m reaching back before my time here) - With a caveat - I’d have him at the power forward spot, instead of center, where he spent his entire career.  At his height (6’11”, if I’m not mistaken), he still is a good fit to play the four, plus his athleticism and defensive ability (which is to say, the greatest ever) would prevent any mismatches with smaller, quicker forwards.  For whatever reason, I’ve always thought of the prototypical power forward as a guy who defends like hell, rebounds like hell, throws outlet passes like hell, and finishes on dunks in transition, off of offensive rebounds, and on the receiving end of alley-oops.  This doesn’t necessarily make sense, given that some of the game’s most talented offensive post players have been fours (McHale, Barkley, Malone, etc.).  But whatever.  My notion of the ideal power forward is what I just described.  And Russell fits that description perfectly.  Greatest defensive player ever, greatest-or-second-greatest rebounder ever, and the catalyst for the run-and-gun Celtics of the 50s and 60s with his outlet passing and lane-filling on the break.  Russell would be my team’s emotional and psychic anchor, even if Jordan would have to be the leader because of the sheer force of his personality.  Remember, my life is at stake with this game.  My team has to win this game in order for me to not die.  With that in mind, I’ll take the greatest winner in the history of team sports in my five, please.  (Also the greatest winner in the future of team sports, by the way.  Thirteen years in the league, twelve Finals appearances, eleven titles.  No professional athlete in a team sport is ever going to match that.  No one.  Not ever.)

4.  Tim Duncan (mid-aughts-ish) - Here’s another caveat, closely related to the first.  I would have Duncan play center, even though he’s technically been listed as a power forward for his entire career.  So yeah, on my Top Five, I’m taking the greatest center of all time and playing him at power forward, and I’m taking the greatest power forward of all time and playing him at center.  Some of this is just semantics, as Timmy’s skill set simply matches that of what I look for in my ideal prototype of a center more so than Russell’s does.  And these are two great, unselfish players that could have played beautifully together, regardless of the semi-arbitrary label applied to each of them.  Furthermore, most NBA coaches, executives and general geeks will tell you that, regardless of what goes on the box score, Duncan has been the Spurs’s starting center for the last ten years (since David Robinson’s retirement).

Individually, TD is spectacular.  I’ve always loved his post game, and that fifteen-foot bank shot of his is just money.  He’s routinely one of the best rebounders in the league, always capable of pulling down 15+ boards on a given night if necessary, even if he was never consistently a monster rebounder in the Russell-Wilt-Rodman mold.  Defensively, he’s one of the best to ever man the post.  He seems like one of these guys (Kevin Garnett being another contemporary example) that knows where each one of his teammates is supposed to be, based on where the ball is, where each player is, how many seconds are left on the shot clock, etc., at any given moment during a defensive possession.  Added to that defensive mastermind quality, he’s 8th on the all-time blocked shots list.  With Duncan and Russell both manning the paint on defense, it’s going to be nearly impossible to score at the basket against my squad.

But what I really love about him, why I really want Timmy D. on my five goes beyond his individual brilliance.  It’s because he’s one of the greatest teammates ever.  Have you ever heard or read a comment made about him by a current or former teammate that was anything other than gushing?  He makes other guys better.  He always looks to make the extra pass.  He takes on whatever his team needs him to, whether that means dominating the glass, looking to score in the post, letting the offense run through him and setting up teammates, or putting the clamps on an opposing scoring threat on the block.  He doesn’t care if expending so much energy on one facet of his game might mean a dip in stats somewhere else.  Above everything, he gives of himself for the betterment of his team; he gives of himself in the pursuit of winning.  That’s the kind of guy I want playing a game for my life.

5. LeBron James (current model) - 2010 Stuart is rolling over in his grave right now.  I didn’t care about The Decision (upper case), but the decision (lower case) infuriated me.  Yeah, The Decision was a PR nightmare and all, but whatever.  I don’t care about that stuff.  I care about history, about legacies.  And when LeBron made the decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade, one of his biggest rivals and a guy who had already been to the mountaintop - unlike Bron at the time - I just thought he was throwing away the legacy he could have had as one of the greatest ever.  I was fine with him leaving Cleveland; I wanted LeBron to go to the Knicks, bring a few championships back to New York and become a basketball god.  I wanted him to want that.  But when he made the decision to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh to form the Super Friends, it felt like he was taking the easy way out, like even if they did win numerous championships together, his legacy would always have to have that asterisk beside it: He wasn’t truly a killer.  He didn’t want to crush the souls of his competition like MJ and Kobe did.  He had to acquiesce to one of his rivals to get to the mountaintop.  He had to go to another star’s team to get his championships.  He wasn’t truly a killer.

But who knows?  Maybe when the story of LeBron’s career is finished, it will be written that while Jordan vanquished all the would-be challengers to his throne, LeBron joined a rival who had his own throne, and in just a few years subjugated that rival and claimed that throne for himself.  Jordan beat his rivals.  LeBron took one of his biggest rivals and made that rival a sidekick.  Maybe that’s an even greater vanquishing than Jordan ever pulled off.
Regardless of all that, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out, once again, that my life is hypothetically on the line here.  So, despite my mixed personal feelings about LeBron, I have to set that aside and do what I can to hypothetically save my life.

I wrote above that I love the notion of having Pippen on my team because of his defensive prowess on the perimeter.  LeBron has become a little like Pippen on steroids as a defender, with the same length, athleticism and ability to cover massive amounts of space, but he’s so much more physically imposing than Pippen was.  Unleashing Jordan and LeBron on the perimeter defensively would be incredible.  And with Duncan and Russell backing them up in the paint, they could be even more aggressive - going after steals, trapping, overplaying passing lanes, playing close up on good shooters, and generally wreaking havoc, because, hey, they’d only have two of the best defensive anchors to ever play the game backing them up. 

Offensively, LeBron is a maestro.  His physicality, athleticism, court vision, passing instincts, exceptional ball-handling, explosion to the basket, near-invincibility when finishing through contact and superior shooting make him the absolute beast that he is. 

Beyond that, please take a moment to imagine the mind-boggling passing this team would exhibit.  LeBron and Bird are two of the greatest, most imaginative passers in the game’s history, and they’re both 6’9”.  Duncan is one of the best-passing big men ever, and utterly unselfish.  Russell was a master of the outlet pass, and possibly the single greatest, most selfless teammate ever.  How many Oh my god did you just see that?! passing sequences would happen in a game with these guys playing together?  And, you know, one of the primary beneficiaries of this beautiful passing would be one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.  I feel like good things would happen for this team offensively.

True, I have no point guard.  But LeBron could bring the ball up and provide much of the playmaking, Jordan could share ball-handling duties, and with the passing of LBJ, Bird and Duncan, I don’t think I’d need someone to run the offense - it would run itself, through those three.

If it comes down to the nitty gritty at the end of the game, I’ve got Duncan if we need to go to the post, I’ve got Bird if we need a clutch three, and I’ve got MJ if we just need a bucket, at all costs.  Oh, and LeBron might be able to chip in here or there.

So I love my team on the offensive end of the court.  But I have to keep coming back to defense and rebounding.  As far as rebounding is concerned, we’ve got one of the two best rebounders ever on this team (Russell - career 22.5 RPG); we’ve got Tim Duncan (11.2 RPG); we’ve got MJ, a well-above-average rebounding guard (6.2 RPG); and we’ve got LeBron (7.3 RPG) and Bird (10.0 RPG), both good rebounders at their position.  Defensively, LeBron and Jordan would wreak havoc on the perimeter; they’d be backed up by Russell and Duncan, who’d also be able to lock their own guys down; and Bird would roam the passing lanes, constantly looking to make something happen off the ball.  This would be the rare collection of players that would actually be fun to watch play defense.  I’m giddy just thinking about it.

Simply put, these five guys would be magical on offense, and they would defend and rebound like mad.  I’d feel pretty damned good putting my life in their hands.  Hypothetically.