31 May 2013

MMA: Behold the Evolution

By StB
Milwuakee, WI

One of the most exciting things about mixed martial arts is how the sport keeps evolving. As each year passes, the fighters get bigger and stronger. But, that doesn't matter if you aren't getting better.

It seemed to start with grapplers taking over. They would pull their striking opponent to the ground and dominate them. Then the BJJ guys took advantage of the ground game by fighting back with submissions from their back.

The true mixed martial artist evolved from there. Guys like George St. Pierre and Anderson Silva -- no surprise, current champions -- worked to have multiple skills to confuse their opponents.

Now, it seems that fighters are adopting some simple techniques that are usually seen. The first was the simple jab. Boxers rely on it to set up their punches. For whatever reason, MMA fighters weren't consistently using jabs. St. Pierre relied on a jab to make Josh Koscheck's face look like raw hamburger.

The uppercut has been used by some fighters effectively as well.

Now, the roundhouse kick seems to be coming into vogue. Watch the devastating KO by Vitor Belfort:

Vitor Belfort is no spring chicken. In his late 30s, he has been fighting since he was 19. Yet, this is the first time he has used such a devastating kick. Some young promising fighters like Stephen Thompson have made the roundhouse kick a part of their arsenal. Best part about this kick? It is such a cool knockout to view. Hopefully we'll see more of them before the next devastating move comes along.

30 May 2013

B.S. About Memphis, MLK, and the NBA

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

“I didn’t know that much about Memphis, but I didn’t realize the effect that that shooting had on that city.... You know, in Dallas, which was also affected by JFK, obviously, but they had the Cowboys... it’s a big city, they had Dallas the TV show... the city eventually had its own identity that went beyond that. And then the JFK assassination turned into something else and ‘Who did it?’ and people would go there to see where he [was] killed and to figure out if it was Lee Harvey Oswald or somebody else and that became kind of its own part. And that... with Martin Luther King none of that stuff happened. It was just like this sad, somber place, and what we found out was like, you know, at one point they almost knocked down that hotel because Memphis just wanted to get away from it. ‘We gotta move on... we gotta get away from this.’ And then a lot of people fought to keep it. And now they’ve kind of embraced it, but I think from what we, we... people we talked to [and] stuff we read, like, the shooting kind of set the tone for how the city thinks about stuff. Like even... we were at Game 3, right? Great crowd. They fall behind, and the whole crowd got tense. Like it was like, it was like ‘Oh, no, something bad’s gonna happen.’ And I think it starts from that shooting and it’s just that mindset they have.”

That was Bill Simmons, commenting on the 5/29/13 episode of his “B.S. Report” podcast about the city of Memphis and his recent experience there while watching San Antonio Spurs complete its sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals.

Out of context, the comment reads exceedingly strangely, with Simmons making broad, incomplete gestures about cities’ personalities being shaped by historical events and their sports teams, then drawing what seems like a jarring link between civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968 and the behavior of the crowd at a basketball game taking place at the FexEd Forum in Memphis on May 25, 2013.

In context, the observation is still pretty odd, although perhaps a little more understandable.

Simmons’s podcast often features the sportswriter and television analyst engaging in lengthy conversations with guests or co-hosts, usually without any constraints either of time or subject matter. Indeed, the opening disclaimer for the show suggests the listener be prepared for pretty much anything: “The ‘B.S. Report’ is a free-flowing conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects.”

That adjective “free-flowing” alludes both to style and content. Stylistically, shows’ interviews and discussions are often unstructured and sometimes even whimsically governed by unpredictable chains of association suggested by Simmons and others. In terms of content, Simmons has become famous for popularizing a purposefully blinkered “fan perspective” to sports reporting, with his podcasts and similarly lengthy columns unashamedly presenting an especially subjective take on the sports world.

The Grantland website, an offshoot of ESPN over which Simmons presides, has become a hub of sorts around which many different writers have gathered over the last few years to share their own unique perspectives on sports and popular culture. With Simmons leading by example, many who contribute to the site in the form of columns and podcasts likewise frequently indulge in attempts to connect sports to the culture at large, again often doing so in ways that more closely resemble the personal essayist pursuing an individual line of reasoning and not so much a reporter simply sharing details of an event in an objective manner.

All of which is to say, for Simmons to venture way out on a limb like he did on his podcast this week and try (1) to opine with pretend-profundity about the character of a city after spending a few days there, and (2) to link an important historical event that occurred in that city just over 45 years ago to crowd behavior at a basketball game last weekend isn’t that out of character for him. It isn’t that far removed from other quasi-intellectual or just plain eccentric observations sometimes shared either by Simmons or others whose ideas appear under the Grantland aegis.

That unorthodox ideas are allowed to be explored and shared is part of what makes Grantland an interesting site. Additionally, any attempt to situate sports within larger historical or cultural contexts can potentially be valuable, especially since most sports reporting and commentary functions within an exceedingly narrow scope that doesn’t necessarily acknowledge anything else exists beyond the game and final score.

It is correct to say both Dallas and Memphis have been greatly affected (in different ways) by the assassinations that occurred in those cities. It is also correct to some extent to look upon the actions and behavior of fans at a major sporting event as indicating something of the “character” or “personality” of the town or city in which that event takes place. In both cases, though, conclusions drawn must be heavily qualified or marked as tentative, as what is being described is necessarily an act of consciously-applied generalization, usually made subjectively.

The connection Simmons drew between Memphis residents’ belated grief and misgiving at MLK’s assassination and first-quarter apprehension about their team’s performance versus the Spurs is not at all persuasive, even if his co-host Jalen Rose immediately agreed with it afterwards. It reminds me a little of “reader response” literary criticism that focuses more prominently on the reader’s perspective than that of the author or even the work itself, a mode of interpretation sometimes evoked to justify conclusions about the meaning of a work that were clearly not intended or even anticipated by the author.

It also reminds me of what sometimes gets called “immersion criticism” these days in which interpreters pursue whacked out theses that draw highly improbable connections in order to support what can be inventive or uncanny explanations of symbolic meaning.

I’m thinking of something like the recent spate of interpretations (many coming in the form of YouTube videos) of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining that posit the film to have been a “confession” by Kubrick of his involvement in a conspiratorial cover-up of a faked Moon landing in 1969. That Grantland contributor and frequent link-drawer-between-the-seemingly-unlinkable Chuck Klosterman wrote about the “obsessive theorists” pursuing the Shining-faked Moon landing idea for Grantland a few months ago is not a coincidence. That link is real, namely, the one between like-minded writers eager to locate and explore unlikely cultural connections.

I respond to that form of analysis by likening it more to art than criticism. It really is more a manner of storytelling than interpretation, albeit a form of storytelling that takes the form of explaining a story someone else has told. In the end it might incidentally reveal something about the work being discussed, but it’s much more likely to tell us a lot more about the person doing the interpretation.

That’s what I think we have here with Simmons’s odd, unconvincing MLK-NBA connection. He visited Memphis and with an open mind found himself trying to take in (perhaps hastily) something of the city’s history and character. Tourists visiting Memphis with such a mindset can potentially be influenced by many aspects of the city’s history, the life of Elvis Presley and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. being a couple of them.

Simmons found himself thinking a lot about MLK and his legacy -- and the legacy of his assassination -- and being thus immersed in that story his interpretation of the one he was there to cover was perhaps understandably affected. The observation is pretty shallow when it comes to Memphis and/or Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. It’s perhaps slightly deeper with regard to revealing something about Simmons himself, although he’d have been better served to have prefaced it with a disclaimer, a different one than the one that typically kicks off his podcasts.

You know, something acknowledging more explicitly that other meaning of “B.S.” and the possibility of it freely surfacing amid the free-flowing conversation.

Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

29 May 2013

Post Moves, Roy Hibbert, and the Ghost of Frederic Weiss

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

My girlfriend works in reality TV production and she viewed footage in which two of the cast members played pickup basketball. One of them kept screaming "Post move! Post move!" My girlfriend was baffled. She didn't know what the phrase meant and wanted to make sure it wasn't inappropriate slang. On the contrary I told her, "It's and old school playground thing. You never see that in the NBA anymore."

My girlfriend is a wonderful and understanding woman. We've been living together for six years and anyone who has been married understands the importance of compromise and give/take as an essential competent to a successful long-term union. For her benefit, I've sat through hours and hours of horrible TV shows and episodes of American Idol, while she endured seasonal sporting folly, like how I rearrange all the furniture in the living room on Sunday mornings during football season for optimal viewing, or how I transform into a raving lunatic during the month of March while I scream at the TV at the top of my lungs, "HIT YOUR FUCKING FREE THROWS!"

She grokked a deeper understanding about sports through sheer osmosis by watching me watch sports, or hearing tidbits from different podcasts I subscribe to (she loves the colorful characters with thick accents from different sportsbetting pods). Despite all of those experiences, she still doesn't know all the in and outs of some sports. For example, last night during the Kings-Sharks hockey game, I had to explain the concept of "icing" and I don't think I did a very good job. She had the same puzzled look on her face before as she had after. A few months ago, she asked me to define "pick and roll." I explained it and showed her a few examples during a Knicks game. She understood it right away and said, "Ahhhhh. Now I get it. I thought it was a pot reference. Seriously, you know, you pick up the weed, then you roll a joint?"

Now, that's fucking hilarious.

Back to the "post move" question. When my girlfriend asked about it, I delivered a 20-minute soliloquy about the rise and fall of the low-post move in the NBA and the evolution of centers from a gigantic mountain-of-a-man (e.g. Shaq) to a sleek, slender, and mobile jump shooters that mesh better with motion offenses and pick-and-roll rendition plays. When I finished, she looked confused. So I summed it up as briefly as I can with a demonstration and I backed my ass into her and put my hand in the air. "It's when the tallest dude on the court stands right in front of the basket, in the post position, and the team tries to pass him the ball for a high percentage shot."

She finally understood. "Post move" wasn't a kitschy drug reference (like she assumed with the pick and roll) and it's definitely not a clever new way to describe a lewd sex-act, or some hip new party thing that all the high school kids are doing on weekends (akin to soaking tampons in vodka and inserting them in vaginal and/or rectal areas... I'm horrified and impressed in the same breath).

The Knicks got whopped by the Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. You can blame Rhianna for being Nancy Spungen in her convoluted Sid-and-Nancy relationship with J.R. Smith (the NBA's incarnation of Sid Vicious). Maybe Rhianna's high-flying lifestyle sparked J.R. Smith's affinity to Bolivian marching powder? Or maybe Melo's torn shoulder is the reason the Knicks are not playing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals? But the truth of the matter is that the Knicks could not beat the Pacers by playing small ball. Inserting Melo in the 4-slot works in the regular season, but it's an exploitable weakness in the playoffs. The Knicks lacked height and depth had no one who could rebound aside from Tyson Chandler. The Pacers big men destroyed the Knicks. Even if the injury bug did not hit Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas, the Knicks still would have struggled to stop Paul George and the emergence of Roy Hibbert as the new Beast from the East.

Roy Hibbert is on now everyone's radar and he's a throwback to the old days of when Big Men ruled the NBA. It's easy to blame Mike D'Antoni's innovative spread offense (that de-emphasized post play) for ruining the game when big men were kings, but a systemic revolution has been going on for over a decade or more beginning at the earliest levels of player development.

Charles Pierce explained the extinction of post play in a recent article in Grantland:
Nobody teaches low-post play anymore. The kids hate it, so the AAU coaches don't teach it because the kids run AAU ball and everybody knows it. College coaches all run that motion stuff, which means that all the high school coaches run it, too, because high school basketball coaches are like a flock of birds on a wire, to borrow Eugene McCarthy's famous description of the political press corps. One flies off and they all fly off. So every big man in America wants to be a pick-and-roll center, or a pick-and-pop guy. "It's like nobody coaches it anymore because nobody wants to play that way anymore," said Paul George. "They all want to be out there, facing the basket, slashing and driving, or popping out for a J."
You can point fingers at AAU coaches because they're the first rung in the development food chain. Then there's those dictator-like college coaches that love to  grind out buckets through motion offense (and in the modern college game it's gotten extremely boring to watch teams run off  20+ seconds of fake motion offense before finally running the real play with 10 seconds left on the shot clock). The NBA game has evolved out of necessity. You'll no longer see post play as the anchor for the offense. Gone are the halcyon days of Chamberlain, Russell, and Jabbar and when Giants Ruled the Paint.

Remember back in 1999 when the Knicks drafted 7-3 center Frederic Weiss from France with the #15 pick? The knuckleheads running the Knicks at the time were convinced that Weiss was the French savior and the heir apparent to Patrick Ewing. If it weren't for the New York Jets bumbling their draft picks year after year, that horrendous Weiss pick might go down as one of the worst drafting gaffes in the history of NYC pro sports. Instead of drafting Ron Artest (interesting side note, Manu Ginobil was the next-to-last pick in the 1999 draft), the Knicks opted to rebuild their franchise around Weiss... who never played a game in the NBA.

At the turn of the century, NBA scouts were stuck in their old-school ways and never understood that European big men were never going to evolve into prototypical post players. Euro seven footers were always shooters first, which made them the perfect component for a pick-and-pop offense, but terrible candidates for an old school low-post offense.

Roy Hibbert was cast out of the old mold of NBA centers. He's part of a deep tradition of Georgetown big men, a program that always sought out shot blockers on defense and low-post wizards on offense. Late in his NBA career Patrick Ewing eventually became the master of the pick-and-pop, but he was a traditional big man during his days with the Hoyas. Ewing, and other centers that followed him (Zo and Dikembe), paid their dues on the block in the rough and tumble Big East.

I doubt the Heat will lose this series to the Pacers, but the only reason it's tied at 2-2 is because of the forceful presence of Roy Hibbert. Who knows what could have been if Hibbert was on the floor in overtime during Game 1 when LeBron James drove uncontested to the hole and win the game? Had Hibbert been in the game, James would have run into a brick wall.

Professional sports are always evolving, but sometimes trends cycle back. Will there ever be a re-visitation to low-post play? Not until there's an abundance of behemoth Shaq-sized players flourishing in the college ranks. But in the meantime, enjoy every moment that Roy Hibbert is on the court.

Pauly is the author of Lost Vegas: The Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker.

28 May 2013

A's Weekly Digest: Armed and Dangerous

By Joe Speaker
Los Angeles, CA

Look, we're friends, we've developed a certain trust, so I'm not going to lie to you. It's difficult to give too many shits about the A's when my Los Angeles Kings are locked in titanic struggle with the Sharks for California hockey supremacy (and doubly harder when the A's fans I follow on Twitter are rooting against me and my Kings, making me re-think my entire relationship with them). The Oakland Nine have been relegated to my personal back pages for the past two weeks and for that I apologize. Yesterday's 4-1 win over the Giants was the first full game I've watched since the Stanley Cup playoffs began. It's a tough problem, one I'm not used to having, as the Kings have only recently made May (and June) hockey a priority. I didn't miss the A's much when they were stinking it up in Cleveland, but they've since righted the ship, so I've been checking in on them more frequently between periods. Had I been able to muster the time and effort to write, you would have read a blistering diatribe about umpire Angel Hernandez (who is crooked and incompetent) and a lament about Brett Anderson's health (Jed Lowrie thinks he's fragile) or perhaps a plea for Josh Donaldson (.950 OPS) to be recognized as the bad ass he currently is.

So, sorry you missed all that, but we're back! As is the A's pitching, which, along with a series against the Astros*, has fueled the club on a 9-1 spurt and pulled them back to within three games of mighty Texas. I would also like to gleefully mention (as per the terms of my contract), the Angels remain 5.5 back of Oakland despite the Halos winning 8 straight. Though the aforementioned Anderson is on the shelf for at least a month with a stress fracture in his foot (take the over), the rotation has righted itself of late after an inconsistent start to the season.

*The A's are now 9-0 against the hapless 'Stros.

I was about to call Dan Straily the Poster Boy  for the A's rotation inconsistencies, but Jerrod Parker works, too. So let's take a quick peek at both. Straily, the erstwhile 5th starter was sporting an ERA in the 7s before handling two pretty good teams his last two outings, holding Texas and San Francisco to one run over 13 innings. Parker, who most A's fans will say is the most talented of the young arms thanks to his fantastic change-up, has now put together three straight quality starts. The problem for both, as with most young arms, has been command. They can get a lot of swings and misses with their off-speed stuff, but only if they get ahead by spotting the fastball. Certainly, there's been improvement in that area recently. In fact, the entire staff's OPS against is 50 points lower in May than it was in April. With the non-Donaldson part of the offense skidding, the pitching, and the Houston Astros*, have gotten the team firmly back in the race.


Up next this week is three more with the defending champion Giants, followed by a visit from the White Sox, though I probably won't see much of these games due to the fallout from tonight's Game 7. If the Kings win, it's off to Chicago on Saturday (most likely) for further torture. If they lose, I'll be over there in the corner, weeping quietly. I can't hardly bear it. I'm going to either vomit or crap myself at some point tonight. Guaranteed.

Yay sports!

In Defense of Star Treatment

By Grange95

"All animals are equal. But some animals are more
equal than others."
~ George Orwell, Animal Farm

Last weekend, I was watching the Knicks-Pacers playoff game. Well, not so much watching as listening to the broadcast while doing some legal research and writing for work. The first half of any NBA playoff game isn't worth my full attention until the conference finals, unless I have an investment riding on the first half outcome.

At some point, the announcers got all excited as Carmelo Anthony drove to the hoop, split two defenders, and made a rather impressive, athletic shot. TWEET! And one! Two no-name Pacers—seriously, other than Roy Hibbert, name the other four Pacers' starters—stood there with the standard arms-up, "Ma, I'm innocent!" look that usually is about as sincere and persuasive as a Lance Armstrong interview. I glanced up for the replay. Eh, pretty ticky-tack, but pretty standard. The announcers expressed disbelief about the call, and in the ensuing Twitter commentary, a number of Pacers fans suggested Melo gets more foul calls because he's a superstar player who plays for the Knicks.

Well of course he does. And Justin Timberlake bangs more hot chicks than you do because he's rich, famous, and good-looking. It's what makes America great. Or at least better than Canada.

The subject of "star treatment" or "superstar rules"—the idea that star athletes get special treatment from officials—gets many sports fans and commentators all hot and bothered. The phenomenon is not limited to basketball. In baseball, the outside edge of the strike zone can expand by two to four inches for star pitchers, while it can contract nearly as much for star hitters. In football, star quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning draw more defensive penalties from the referees than do journeyman quarterbacks. In golf, the recent Masters tournament saw heated controversy when megastar Tiger Woods was given a two-stroke penalty instead of being disqualified for taking an improper drop and signing an inaccurate scorecard heading into the weekend rounds. Even the faux sport of poker occasionally gets in on the star treatment controversy when superstars like Phil Hellmuth or Scotty Nguyen skate by without penalty for conduct that would merit a penalty for lesser-known players.

Still, star treatment is most common in basketball, mostly because of basketball's unique penalty system in which any player racking up five (college) or six (pro) personal fouls is disqualified from the game. A star basketball player who picks up a couple of quick fouls is likely to sit out significant minutes of game time, unlike a baseball pitcher who walks a couple of early batters, or a football defensive back who commits a couple of early pass interference penalties. So it's not exactly shocking when star NBA players such as LeBron James are routinely called for fewer fouls than other players (including long streaks of games with no fouls at all). Even less surprising is LeBron's star teammate, Dwyane Wade, not being penalized with an ejection and suspension for an obvious flagrant foul as the Miami Heat charged to the 2012 NBA title.

Star treatment in basketball can show up in a wide variety of ways. Star players get more leeway with palming (e.g., Allen Iverson, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade) and traveling (e.g., Patrick Ewing, Blake Griffin, and James Harden). On a breakaway play with a collision between two opposing star players, referees will avoid a foul call on either player and opt for a bailout call, usually traveling, a jump ball, or out-of-bounds in favor of the offensive team. A close block/charge call goes to the star player. Star players can be rougher in the paint and guard closer on the perimeter, yet draw touch fouls on offense and flop for charges on defense. If an opposing player drives to the bucket against a star player and is fouled, generally the call goes against the non-star defensive player who rotated over to help defend the play. Perhaps most importantly, when a star player is in foul trouble, studies have established that the star player is far less likely to be whistled for a loose ball foul than their journeyman teammates.

Star treatment is especially prevalent in basketball because referees have such a wide range of discretion in deciding whether to call a foul on any given play. It's not that the NBA (or college or high school league) directs its referees to favor star players. Rather, it's more of an unwritten rule, an accepted and expected part of the game, for star players to be given more deference on calls. Coaches and players don't mind that the opposing star players will get some leeway, as long as their star players get the same accommodation. On the other hand, a referee who calls a "by the book" game and regularly tags star players with ticky-tack fouls will likely find his game assignments drying up.

Sports fans and commentators who rail against star treatment miss the point—star treatment is good for the game. First, it's important to understand that star treatment is not taking average players and giving them an unfair advantage over their similarly talented competitors. Rather, star treatment merely recognizes that some players have elite talent, and allows the game to be called in a way that showcases that amazing talent. LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and other NBA stars are so talented they would dominate their contemporaries regardless of how their games were called. Star treatment merely polishes the diamonds in the rough.

Second, star treatment is good for the journeyman players, the teams, and their leagues. Stars drive fan support, ticket and merchandise sales, TV ratings, and ad revenues. A study of star player LeBron James demonstrated the financial impact of his decision to join the Miami Heat:
  • Attendance increased from 19th to 4th in the NBA.
  • Ticket sales jumped from $50 million to $311 million.
  • TV ratings improved from a 3.9 to a 5.0.
  • Franchise value increased from $355 million to $425 million.
LeBron James and his fellow superstars are the key reason why the NBA's next TV contract is expected to jump from $930 million per season to more than $1.2 billion. A rising tide lifts all boats, and an extra $270 million per year in TV revenue alone makes it pretty easy for everyone in the NBA to not merely tolerate but actively embrace the concept of star treatment. Similarly, the fact that Tiger Woods has almost singlehandedly caused PGA tournament attendance, TV ratings, and purses to explode along with player product endorsement deals over the past fifteen or so years likely buys him a great deal of indulgence from the PGA tour and his fellow PGA players who have been busy cashing in on the Tiger Bubble.

Which brings us to the final reason why star treatment should be embraced by sports fans and commentators—it's what we want. Sure, when it's your team suffering from an opposing team's star player seemingly (or actually) getting the benefit of favorable officiating, it can be tough to stomach. But when a family of four (or four bros on a guys' night out) are looking at spending north of $200 for the privilege of attending an average NBA game, fans want to see the stars play the full game, not a battle of some mediocre bench scrubs. Sports are just another form of entertainment. Fans don't go to Broadway shows to see understudies fill in for stars, they don't go to movies to see the supporting character actors, and they don't go to rock concerts to see the opening acts. When fans sit down to watch the NBA playoffs, particularly the later rounds, they want to see classic games highlighting star players. They want to see Dominique Wilkins vs. Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dr. J vs. Magic, Magic vs. Bird, Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone, Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant vs. Reggie Miller, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade vs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ... you get the idea. What sports fans don't want to see is all of the star players sitting on the bench for most of a high-stakes game.

Star treatment is all about selling the product, and that product is drama writ on an athletic stage. The most iconic moment of Michael Jordan's stellar career was his final NBA game—Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. In the closing seconds of that game, the Bulls were down a point when Jordan blatantly pushed off of the Jazz's Bryon Russell, freeing himself for the game-and-series-winning shot. It was an easy offensive foul call, yet an even easier non-call. The refs swallowed their whistles. The net snicked. Jordan rode off into the sunset with six NBA titles, ending with his final shot in his final game being a title-winner. Drama. At the end of the day, the game is about star players making amazing, memorable plays, rules be damned. No player, no coach, no fan would have wanted a referee running in and waving off that shot and calling an offensive foul on the greatest player to ever play the game, any more than they would have wanted a referee to call a charge on the Jazz's Karl Malone making a strong move to the rim in the waning seconds.

So next time you are inclined to kvetch about an opposing player being given star treatment, just remember:

You want star treatment. You need star treatment.

Grange95 is the author of the crAAKKer poker blog. Grange played high school basketball and refereed high school and AAU basketball for 18 years, including games involving numerous future college players and even two future Iowa-native NBA playersKirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. Grange regards himself equally incompetent as NBA referees Joey Crawford and Dick Bavetta.

27 May 2013

Tapping A Beer: May May, Please Go Away!

By StB
Milwaukee, WI

This month has been brutal to the Milwaukee Brewers. They have won only 5 games all month during May, which sent them spiraling towards the cellar of the NL Central.

Thankfully, the Cubs are currently in the cellar to prevent that from happening to the Brewers.

It is somewhat mind-boggling how the Brewers just cannot get things going. They have 5 players in the starting lineup hitting over .300. Unfortunately, the other 3 starters are at .200 with Rickey Weeks sucking hind tit at .174.

I wonder if he is drinking as much as I am when they play?

The weird thing is, this is about right for this team. May is an annual obstacle course. Year after year, play terribly during the 5th month of the year.

The most frustrating thing this year has been the total lack of consistency. There is no clutch hitting, no rallies, and they lack consistent pitching. The only consistent thing has been players hitting the IR.

But, I have some faith. Lots of baseball left to be played. Plus, what is the worst thing that can happen? I get cheaper tickets to games in July and August when all the fickle fans are gone.

26 May 2013

Bronx Bums: 5/26 Report - Hold Slim Lead in AL East

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Mo River is 18 for 18 in save opportunities

Sometimes you have one of those break-even weeks. I guess it's better to go 3-3 than get your ass kicked and end up 0-6, right? The Yankees battled two division foes this week and took 2 out of 3 in Tampa this weekend, but they dropped 2 out of 3 in Baltimore. The Yankees continued to play super close games and were engaged in three extra inning games. They won 2 out of 3 of those "overtime" affairs, but the bullpen ate up a lot of innings.

The Yankees have been plagued with injuries all year and have to eat over $100 million in payroll on a few keys players on the disabled list. Just when they get Granderson back in the lineup, he's out on the 15-Day DL with a broken pinkie knuckle after being hit by a pitch. Tough break. Despite all of the weird injuries to starters, the Yanks (30-19) are still in first place in the AL East and sitting 11 games above .500.

The good news is that the Yanks got Ivan Nova back and he won a relief appearance in a Yanks 4-3 come-from-behind win in Tampa on Saturday. David Phelps got inserted into the rotation to replace Nova, and Phelped remained in the rotation to fill in for Andy Pettitte (who is out for another week with a bad back). Phelps started five games in May and The Yants are 4-1 when Phelps starts (he's 2-1 with 2 NDs as a starter). In Phelps' only loss, he pitched well, but the Yanks got blanked by the Indians 1-0.

The Yankees lack of run production continues to be their Achilles Heel. When the Yanks don't score, they don't win (they are 5-15 in games they score 3 or fewer runs). When the Yanks produce 5 or more, they are still undefeated with a 17-0 record.

The Yanks' bats are inconsistent, but their bullpen is reliable. When the Yanks are ahead after 7 innings, they have yet to lose a game with an impressive 25-0. Most of that is attributed to Mariano Rivera, who is a perfect 18 for 18 in saves this season. The way Mo is pitching, it might even make him reconsider hanging it up at the end of the season.

On Deck: The Yankees play four games against the Mets in a Subway Series with two games at Shea and two games in the Bronx. Then the Yanks host the Red Sox for a three-game weekend series, which will be a highly-anticipated showdown of the top two teams in the AL East. Whoever wins that series will emerge atop of the AL East. Can't wait to watch it.

23 May 2013

ABA: Red, White, and Blue Balls

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

The ABA. When I was a little kid, the ABA was synonymous with two things.... 1) red, white, and blue basketball, and 2) ginormous afros.

Flashback to the early 1970s. The pros in the ABA had wild hair styles. The white guys looked like roadies from the Allman Brothers and sported porn mustaches, while their black teammates grew out craziest afros and sported fu-man-chu beards. If you see vintage photos of Dr. J during his ABA years, you'll understand what I'm talking about. The entire league looked like they were auditioning for Soul Train.

Artis Gilmore (left) defends Darnell Hillman (right)

It the aftermath of counter culture, the NBA represented the Establishment, while the ABA became a bastion for rebels, outcasts, misfits. My kind of people. The addition of a three-point line opened up the game, which bred a fast-paced environment with tons of high-octane offense. Free-flowing. Uppity jazz-like solos. Nothing like stifling and boring game in the NBA, which incorporated a very disciplined game plan... walk the ball up the court and work it inside to one of the big men. The ABA was all about offense and scoring and more scoring and more scoring. Fast. Fast. Fast. Up tempo. Let's get the ball and run and gun.

If you recall Knicks teams in the 90s and the final scores were always like 83-80. Defensive struggles. Ugly basketball. On a good night, the high-flying ABA teams would put up twice as many points. Final scores of 173-145 were not uncommon. I'd love to have been a pro bettor back then and find any bookies stupid enough to set a total. I'd bet the fucking over ever night.

The ABA had a couple superstars (Dr. J, Iceman, and Artis Gilmore) but it suffered because they lacked lucrative TV contracts. In the age before cable TV, aside from boxing it was difficult to get any sports on the airwaves, let alone an upstart basketball league that featured scary looking dudes that looked like dope-toking hippies and Black Panthers, which were not the type of fringe images the networks wanted to beam into the household across Wonderbread-eating, milquetoast middle America. With the except of a few cities (Denver and Indianapolis), most of the teams did not draw any fans. Some franchises struggled to get a couple hundred of fans every night. Tickets went for as low as a $1. You couldn't give them away. Which was sad, because the quality of basketball was on par with the NBA, but offered up a more entertaining product with soaring monster dunks and bombs raining out of the sky. Whenever they took a jump shot... the red, white, and blue ball made everyone feel like that had ingested a hit of liquid sunshine as swirling colors were sprinkled throughout the arenas.

I recently re-read Loose Balls: The Short and Wild Life of the ABA. It's an oral history and a well-organized collection of remarks and stories from every aspect of the ABA. The multiple perspectives includes players, coaches, owners, broadcasters, and sportswriters, etc.

If you're a fan of the Lakers' girls, then thank the Miami Floridians for their innovation. Instead of ball boys, the Miami franchise used ball girls in bikinis to entice fans to come to the games. They danced during time outs and tried to distract opposing players when they shot free throws.

Miami's original "Ball Girls"

During Turkey Day dinner, I asked my girlfriend's father (who grew up in L.A.) if he recalled any ABA franchises in California. He spoke about the old Anaheim Amigos before they left the O.C. after one season and moved up the freeway to Los Angeles and switched names to the L.A. Stars. The one and only Pat Boone was a minority owner in an ABA franchise in Oakland called the Oaks. Rick Barry played on the Oaks for a year before Boone found out the other majority owners ran up a bunch of debts and swindled him out of a couple million. Word to the wise... don't go into business with shady friends. They will rip you off and then pretend you don't exist! Boone sold the Oaks and paid off the debts, while the new owners moved it to Washington, where it became the Washington Caps.

I vaguely recalled a HBO sports documentary about the ABA that I once watched with my brother. I found it after a ninety second search on YouTube and re-discovered Long Shots, which uses a funky intro from Billy Preston's Circles.

In case you were wondering, my brother and I had a red, white and blue basketball. It held up better in outdoor/playground conditions compared to the nice leather balls that were perfect indoors but got torn up on concrete. At one point, my bro got a Michael Jordan basketball, which was just black and red.

The ABA... gone but not forgotten. The league folded into the NBA after nine rough and tumble seasons. Four ABA franchises are currently pro teams in the NBA: Spurs, Nuggets, Nets, and Pacers.

Pauly is the author of Lost Vegas: The Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker.

19 May 2013

Bronx Bums: 5/19 Report - Little Bronxbowski Overachievers

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Lyle Overbay and the New York Overachievers

The New York Yankees (27-16) and their $100-million disable list have surpassed expectations. With so many starters (and in some cases their understudies) out of the lineup with injuries, this hearty gumbo of overachievers has gelled as a team over the first quarter of the season.

The Yanks began last week on top of the AL East. When the week ended, they still retained the lead. The Yanks went 4-3 this week to keep a half game lead.

On Monday, they split a doubleheader in Cleveland, which were two makeup games from a previous rain out.

On Tuesday, the Yanks returned to the Bronx for six-game home stand against Seattle and Toronto. The Yanks lost their series with Seattle, but continued their dominance over Toronto.

The Yanks added another veteran to their sorry sort of banged up players. Andy Pettitte tweaked his back in a start against Seattle. He left the game with a strained trapezius muscle in his back. He's now on the 15-day DL. At his age, Pettitte is only one bad injry away from ending his career.

After losing 2 out of 3 to Seattle, the Yanks now 4-5 against the AL West (but 2 of those wins were against Houston).

The Yanks won their series against Toronto 2-0 with one rain out. The Yanks own the Blue Jays this year and improved to 8-1.

The Yanks field a team of no-name minor leaguers, washed-up veterans, and Robbie Cano. Their gritty starting pitching (anchored by Kuroda, who is 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP) has propelled them to the top of the AL East. Simply put, when they Yanks don't score, they don't win. If they score 5 or more runs, they are undefeated with a stunning 15-0 record.

Here is the scoring vs. win breakdown:
Yanks score 2 or fewer runs, they are 0-10.
Yanks score 3+ runs, their record is 27-6.
Yanks score 4+ runs, their record is 22-4.
Yanks score 5+ runs, their record is the Yanks are 15-0.
In the last nine defeats, the Yanks scored a total of 10 runs including 4 shutouts. When they don't hit, they really don't hit and the results are ugly 2-hit shutouts. But when the Yanks' hitters are putting good wood on the ball, they really beat up on teams. When the pitchers get run support, they don't waste those cushions and the starters/relievers shut the door.

Plus, Mo River is... well... Mo Rivera. His ERA is 1.56 with a 0.90 WHIP. He has 16 saves in 16 attempts. Mo Perfecto.

The AL East lead has dwindled down from three to two teams. Boston is hot and won 5 in row, while Baltimore dropped 5 in a row. The Yanks lead the Red Sox by only a half game.

On Deck: The Yankees begin an 8-game road trip (last two games are against the Mets through). This week, the Yanks head down to Baltimore for a three-game series. They are 2-1 against the O's this season. The Yanks get Thursday off before heading to Tampa Bay for a three-game weekend series. The Yanks are 1-2 against the Rays this season.

18 May 2013

Life, Basketball, and Everything

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

Among the various developments and stories coming out of the NBA playoffs this week, Kevin Durant’s comments following OKC’s elimination at the hands of Memphis probably stood out for me as the most thought provoking.

Miami took care of the depleted Chicago squad with relative ease, 4-1, and the Spurs moved on as well after handling Golden State 4-2. The Knickerbockers might still make some trouble for Indiana despite being down 3-2, although as always with New York much depends on their outside shooting, which has come and gone for them throughout the playoffs.

Meanwhile Memphis played especially well against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder to advance to the WCF after winning the series 4-1. Key for the Grizzlies was being able repeatedly to slow down Durant in fourth quarters, the relative lack of other options for OKC making it easier for Memphis to do so.

Following the Thunder’s disappointing conclusion to their season, Durant was asked a question that alluded to a statement Kobe Bryant made a couple of years ago about the year being “wasted” when the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs shy of winning a championship. Did Durant similarly think a second-round elimination meant the Thunder’s season had been “wasted”?

“Nothing’s ever a wasted year for me... it’s basketball,” was Durant’s reply. “I’ve grown so much as a man since the beginning of the season. I’ve grown so much as a leader. Nothing is ever wasted.”

Durant elaborated by saying how he felt “blessed” to be able to play a game that he loved for a living, noting how positive an experience it was to be able to “go through some tough times and laugh and argue” with his teammates and thus benefit and learn from the experience. A refreshingly non-standard response, I thought, revealing an understanding of the meaning of sports that went beyond the usual gladiator-speak we’ve grown to expect from professional athletes.

Perhaps sensing a vulnerability in the response, a reporter followed up with a question asking Durant about the possibility of critics who might hear his words and thus “question his competitive fire.”

Durant did get a little fired up at that.

“I don’t give a damn,” Durant began. “I’m going to be who I’m going to be. I’m not Kobe Bryant. I’m not Michael Jordan. I’m not LeBron James. I’m not Magic Johnson. I’m me. I’m not going to ever compromise myself, my integrity and what I believe in for winning some basketball games and winning a championship. That’s just not I how I was brought up.”

Durant’s comments have earned some scrutiny over the last couple of days, with a lot of the usually obtuse commentary from pundits mindlessly echoing the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” mantra they’ve heard from coaches and players ever since Vince Lombardi first popularized the statement nearly a half-century ago. (Lombardi wasn’t the first to utter the quote, incidentally.)

It’s utter heresy for some to imagine professional athletes being motivated to play their sports for any reason other than to win games and championships. The issue instinctively makes me think of former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith -- who always saw sports and their significance as occurring within a broader context -- and his great line about what it means to treat every game as if it were a matter of life and death.

“If you make every game a life-and-death thing, you’re going to have problems,” said Smith, adding that, for one thing, “you’ll be dead a lot.”

The whole idea of a game or season being a “waste” if not ending successfully makes me want to compare the relative significance of the lives being led by players and coaches and the ones lived by those who watch them.

Is it a “waste” to watch our favorite team play and lose? Hardly. And indeed, I think when most players talk about a season being “wasted” or a “failure” or choose other similar language with which to dismiss their efforts they are necessarily engaging in a kind of temporary fiction-making (purposeful or otherwise), saying what is expected of them and not what we all really know is the truth.

I think one primary attraction of sports -- for players and fans alike -- is the way they do tend to provide what often seems like unambiguous meaning to our lives in the form of wins and losses. There’s no denying that a victory at the end of game absolutely determines the meaning of everything that happened along the way, as does a loss. It’s a simpler version of existence, if you think about it, which otherwise never makes sense in such obvious ways.

I appreciate Durant’s willingness to point out that life is more complicated than some seem to want to believe.

Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

17 May 2013

Hockey Fights: The Ottawa Senators vs. The Philadelphia Flyers

By StB
Milwaukee, WI

NHL fans are the opposite. They expect a wall in front of the net and a guy who will fly down the ice and score. But that doesn't mean they don't like a good fight. Or a dozen good fights. 

This battle seemed to continue once they started. It is some good editing so it is hard to tell how the timeline played out. But let's take a good look at the action.

First Brashear bloodies up Ray. The announcers try to claim it was caused by a shot on the helmet but I see two good downward punches that could have easily ripped open the skin by his eye. Brashear with an easy victory here.

Because of the editing it is hard to tell if this happens about the time Ray skated off to see a needle and thread but let's play along. Not sure who is trying to wrap his throws around a ref but I wouldn't recommend that. Hit the ref and you are in big trouble. But it does appear that Brashear is one of the guys being pulled to the ice and then gets tagged by Simpson. Seems petty on Simpson's part. Too bad we don't see what led to the continuation of the brawl.

Wait, that makes it sound like it is over. The Flyer goalie barely gets involved with the fray but that can only mean one thing. The Senators goalie has to join in the fracas! He flies down the ice and they go at it. Goalie fight are like the icing on the cake. I give the Senators goalie the slight nod.

The camera then pans up to the top corner where it looks like a lot slapping from the Senator on the Flyer. We may have missed the real action there Whoever the Senator is, it looks like he slings a mean purse!

Just when it looks like things are settled down, the gloves get dropped after a face off. Again, we do not know if this is all one continuous battle but I like to go with the flow and think it is. Plus I went and got some popcorn. A mean stiff jab sends the Flyer to the cold surface. The refs move in to separate them.

Wait, two more fights have broken out?!?!?!? This is total chaos! We get to watch more of a wrestling match than anything. It was close to a Thai clinch so I was expecting to see a knee meet the guy's jaw. That had me wondering...at what point will we see a hockey fight involving some MMA?

On the next jump we get another couple punches thrown just after the face off. The Senator is punching away and twists the Flyer to the ground. But he pops back up to throw some punches of his own until he gets hip tossed to the ice.

The next one is kinda quick. A full on tackle and plant to the ice. The ref goes for the pin. 1..2..3!

Good thing he covers those guys so two old men can battle near center ice. You know they are running out of players when two old farts who probably rarely see ice time get out there. They probably fought for old time sake and to see their names in the box score. It is amusing because it looks like the Flyer is beating him with a cane. Oh wait, it is likely a brace that came off his arm but he still tries to use it as a weapon. They soon tire out and slow dance, waiting for the refs to get them oxygen.

Another face off and a Superman punch! Bam, bam, bam! The Senator gets off 3 big pops in a row. He pays the price because once the Flyer got him down he delivered 3 of his own.

And then...wait, its over??? 10 fights that we were able to follow. Amazing. I don't know about you but I am spent after watching that.

15 May 2013

NHL Betting: Avoid The Coin Flip Mentality

By Buffalo66
Buffalo, NY

I was checking out my NHL playoffs betting stats (all wagers one unit) and was shocked to find myself at 4-9-1.  I was even more shocked to find myself down only 2.59 units. How can this be? Welcome to the wacky world of pucks, where losing streaks don't mean much on paper.

The NHL playoffs offer a great opportunity to get into hockey wagering.  The 16 best teams fighting for the Stanley Cup.  All of the games are televised and spread out on the schedule, which offers value all the way to the finals.

Most bettors (especially NBA & NFL punters) are used to the basic point spread wager: Team A +4 or Team B -4.  Both sides pay -110.  It's just a decision of which side to take.  This is also the basic definition of coin flip mentality: Viewing a wager as a 50/50 proposition.

More advanced bettors know that sometimes money line wagers offer better value.  In the NHL it is no different.  In my opinion, one advantage NHL punters have is that the lines rarely move.  Since there is less money pouring in to change the board, paying attention to lineup changes can put huge dogs in play for you.

With the straight wagers your team just has to win by one goal.  You would think that most games are decided by one in the NHL.  However, on average less than 33% of regular season games are one goal affairs.  The playoffs are slightly higher since only the best teams play.

The number of one goal games by individual teams is directly correlated to offensive output.  Simply put, the teams with the power house offenses have the least one goal games. Those are the teams you look to for point spread bets.

NHL books use a point spread similar to MLB.  Instead of the run line, it's called the puck line.  This wager offers superior value if you think the favorite will win by 2.  Winning by two can often involve the dreaded empty net goal.  Anyone who wagers hockey will tell you that last minute of regulation is a pure shot of adrenaline to an action junkie.

If you see a puck line favorite you like, I'd expect to get at least +200 or better if you're going to risk a 2 goal win.  Conversely, if you like a dog to keep it a one goal game, look for -200 or better.

NHL also offers regulation time wagers.  This allows you get a better line if you think the game will end without overtime.  It's a wager to consider if you really like a side, but aren't sure they can get it done by 2 goals.

As for totals, you can play over/under or team totals.  If the game is expected to be wide open, look for some value on the over.  Anytime a goalie gets hot, look for the under.

A big factor to consider in betting totals is a healthy defensive corps.  Teams dress 6 D-men and they all play significant minutes.  Losing any one of them can impact the true line, whether sides or totals.

I strongly suggest you give NHL betting a try.  With the playoffs, any beginner can study just one series.  There is enough on the wagering menu to offer some value in almost every game.

A little luck doesn't hurt either.

Buffalo66 is a professional sports bettor and one of the most feared opponents in daily fantasy sports.

12 May 2013

Bronx Bums: 5/12 Report - First Place Yanks

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

The Walking Wounded

Something bizarre happened. The banged-up Yankees seized first place in the AL East after Boston got bogged down in a mini-losing streak. Even without $100+ million worth of their top-shelf talent, the Yanks have sole possession of first place and are 10 games over .500.

The Yankees (23-13) won both series on the road this week in Colorado (2 out of 3) and Kansas City (3-game sweep). Overall, the Yanks notched 8 series wins and only lost 4. Since losing their first two series to start the season, the Yanks won an impressive 8 out of their last 10 series.

After dropping the opening game in Colorado (when the Yanks bats went silent once again and suffering their third shut out for the season), the Yanks bounced back and won the next two games. The Yanks left the Mile High City with a 20-13 record and snuck into first place.

The Yanks arrived in Kansas City and promptly whooped the Royals on Friday night. More good news for Phil Hughes. He won his second straight start and evened his record to 2-2 after an ugly start to the season (he gave up 5 dingers in his first 14 innings). Andy Pettitte (4-2) struggled in his two previous outings but on Saturday he regained his composure and scattered five hits over seven solid innings. On Sunday, the Yanks completed a sweep in a game against a formidable pitcher in Ervin Santana (3-1 and 2.36 ERA). Hiroki Kuroda gave up an early run, but Cano and Wells hit back-to-back homeruns to put the Yanks ahead 3-1. The Yank won 4-2 for their fifth consecutive victory. Mo Rivera shut the door in the ninth for his 15th save (in 15 attempts), which tied him for tops in all of baseball with Jason Grilli (Pittsburgh).

The key to the surprising success of the beat-up Yanks is their solid pitching. CC, Kuroda, and Pettitte consistently give them quality starts and Phil Hughes is finally coming around. Plus, Mo Rivera has been a beast out of the bullpen (it won't happen, but Mo's on pace for 60+ saves). 

Skipper Joe Girardi's biggest headache seems is the boisterous Joba Chamberlin, who got into an unusual pissing match with Mo in front of the press on Saturday. The Yanks bent over backwards to accommodate the troubled Chamberlin and even instituted the controversial "Joba Rules" to curtail his usage and prolong his career. The results have been less than stellar.

Joba bugging out in the playoffs

Joba Chamberlin has the skills to be a all-star closer, but he lacks emotionally maturity. I can't help but wonder if this incident is a part of a deeper schism between Joba and the rest of the team. We shall see if Chamberlin's irreverent behavior gives the Yankees brass a reason to dump him at the end of the season. If Chamberlin is the bad seed, then it's wiser to buy a hired gun on the free agent market to replace Mo after he retires.

One of my biggest concerns about the Yankees is the lack of production and the inability to manufacture runs outside of the long ball. The Yanks run differential is very low compared to other division leaders:
AL East: Yanks +19
AL Central: Detroit +53
AL West: TIE -- Texas +40 and Cleveland +29
NL East: Atlanta +21
NL Central: St. Louis +42
NL West: San Francisco +19
The Yanks primary problem is lack of run production. In their previous six losses, the Yankees scored fewer than 1 run in five of those six games. They got lucky this week and won three games in which they only scored three runs. The Yanks are flirting with disaster by relying solely on their pitching. They can only win so many 3-2 and 3-1 games before the pack catches up to them. The Yanks are an astonishing 12-0 when they score 5 or more runs, yet only 11-13 when they score 4 or fewer runs.

The Skinny:  Even with a sub-par offense, thru 36 games the Yankees are 23-13 and reigning in first place in the AL East with Baltimore (23-15) and Boston (22-16) nipping at their heels. Considering the abundance of injuries to starters, the Yanks are damn lucky to be where they are. Since starting the season 5-5, the Yankees are 18-8. Over the last 16 games, the Yankees are 12-4.

Injury Report: The Yanks added another player to the disabled list -- shortstop Eddie Nunez -- who has a gnarly ribcage injury. Nunez, a utility infielder by trade, was Derek Jeter's back-up last year until he got the starting job this season. Jayson Nix, who was filling in for A-Roid, moved from 3B to SS. In the meantime, Chris Nelson is now playing the hot corner and Alberto Gonzalez (recently acquired in a trade with the Cubbies) was called up from AAA to fill the role as utility infielder.

On Deck: The Yanks give up a day off and fly to Cleveland for a double-header to make up for two consecutive rainouts from last month. Cleveland (20-15) is hot and won 12 out of heir last 14 games. Their torrid streak propelled them into a tied for first with Detroit. It's safe to say the Indians are playing significantly much better than when the Yanks beat them twice earlier in the season. On Tuesday, the Yanks (12-7 at home) return to the Bronx for a six-game homestand against Seattle (18-20) and Toronto (15-24). Seattle is sitting in third place in the AL West, while Toronto (7-12 at home) is rocking the AL East cellar. The Yanks are 6-1 against Toronto this year including a four-game sweep in the Bronx at the end of April.

11 May 2013

Tapping a Beer: Brewers Get Flipped the Bird

By StB
Milwaukee, WI

Doom set in the moment John Axford gave up the two-run dinger to Pittsburgh. It was a sign that the weekend was going to be a humbling one. The Cardinals seemed happy to make the point sweeping a 4-game series at Miller Park.

The Brewers seemed to find ways to lose at times. Giving up the big inning, making the untimely error, hitting into inning ending double plays. It was repeated all weekend until the Cards gave them a thumping on Sunday to put them out of their misery.

The view was good on Saturday, but they play on the field didn't measure up.

The Texas Rangers come to town on Tuesday. The Brewers should have Aramis Ramirez back at third base soon. For once in his career he had a good start to the season. I hope he doesn't fall back into his spring funk after missing a couple of weeks. Having declined minor league rehab, it feels like a certainty.

10 May 2013

The Past, The Future, and Derrick Rose

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

It’s an intriguing spot, NBA-wise, at the moment as all four of the second-round series involving the final eight teams have gotten to 1-1. Three of the four appear evenly-matched and perhaps destined to go six or seven games, while the Miami Heat’s “the-beast-has-been-woken” thrashing of the Chicago Bulls by 37 points in Game 2 on Wednesday perhaps suggests a shorter series will be playing out there.

That said, the Bulls are mighty tough at home, and so could well give the Heat some more trouble with their depleted line-up before all is said and done. And, of course, as long as that series continues, so, too, will the endless speculation-slash-psychobabble that has building of late regarding the possible return of 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose to the Bulls line-up.

Derrick Rose

I’ve no special insight regarding Rose’s situation to add to the cacophony, really. Following last year’s season-ending torn ACL in the first game of the playoffs, Rose was medically cleared to play back in January of this year, but has yet to do so. The most commonly repeated explanation regarding Rose’s situation is that he’s not “mentally ready” to come back, which automatically carries the discussion into an area most of us don’t have a lot of authority on which to speak.

While the story of a player coming back from injury is as ordinary as it gets in sports, one of a player not wanting to come back -- or perhaps fearing doing so -- is much less commonplace. Thus the extra scrutiny.

Just recently I happened to reread Roger Angell’s famous New Yorker piece from 1981 in which he attended a Yale-St. John’s baseball game with Smoky Joe Wood, titled “The Web of the Game.” It’s a neat piece of writing, lyrically summing up decades’ worth of baseball while profiling the star of the 1912 World Series, 91 years old at the time Angell met him.

Wood’s story involved his star shining as brightly as stars shone on a baseball field for a brief, dazzling period of time. In 1912 at age 22 the pitcher went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA and won three games in the Series for the championship-winning Boston Red Sox. He’d suffer an injury the following year, however, and his star quickly dimmed and his career was cut short.

Smoky Joe Wood

“Well, maybe I got back to it too soon and maybe I didn’t,” Wood told Angell, referring to his attempt to comeback from the injury. “But the arm never felt right again. The shoulder went bad. I still went on pitching, but the fastball had lost that hop. I never threw a day after that when I wasn’t in pain.... You have to understand that in those days if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid. Now they lay out as long as they need to....”

Indeed, an even century after Wood’s injury, Rose is perhaps in a somewhat similar spot, although the context couldn’t be more different. In any case, it remains intriguing to observe what might happen next with Rose. And how perhaps he’ll be telling the story of his injury and comeback when later looking back on his career.

Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

09 May 2013

Deconstructing Jason Collins

By Grange95

Last week, Jason Collins became the first gay athlete to come out. Well, technically Collins became the first 1) active 2) male player in a 3) major 4) professional 5) North American sports league to come out 6) publicly. But for purposes of the American media, all those extra qualifiers are implied; all those gay and lesbian athletes who have been openly out while competing in sports on the high school, college, or Olympic level, or outside the United States, or in "fringe" sports like rugby, soccer, swimming, diving, tennis, or golf, really don't count. No, for the American sports media—and for most American sports fans—nothing really matters unless it happens in a sport that leads off the evening SportsCenter highlights.

The sports media—the almost exclusively straight media—rushed to analyze what it meant for a gay athlete to come out. The media ended up selling a prepackaged story of the brave gay athlete who shook the foundations of American sports with a courageous and selfless act, risking professional martyrdom for the greater good of advancing the cause of gay equality. The media presented the public a paint-by-numbers picture of Collins as the gay offspring of an admittedly unnatural yet narratively pleasing cross of Jackie Robinson and Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger. What a great story: Jason Collins—underdog role player turned civil rights hero. 

The only problem with the media's Collins-comes-out beatification? It's all bullshit.

* * * * *

Collins' coming out was unquestionably good for gays. It was bold. It was newsworthy. But it wasn't groundbreaking. Gay and lesbian athletes have been out in sports for decades. Martina Navratilova came out in 1981 at the height of her stellar career, at a time when being gay or lesbian was still criminal in many states, where being out meant rejection and hostility from a majority of Americans. Being an openly gay athlete in the 1980s meant almost certain loss of outside income from speaking and endorsement opportunities, and a likely banishment from team sports.

In the ensuing three decades, quite a number of notable and even star lesbian athletes have come out while still active in their sport. Sheryl Swoopes—one of the all-time greatest women basketball players—and Megan Rapinoe—an Olympic soccer player—are among the numerous lesbian athletes who have successfully competed at the elite levels of team sports. Just a few weeks prior to Collins' much-heralded announcement, college all-star basketball player Brittney Griner—possibly the most dominant women's basketball player ever—casually mentioned she was lesbian in a post-draft interview. Turns out, Griner has been out since ninth grade. Funny how we haven't heard any chatter about whether Griner being an out lesbian would negatively affect her team; the Baylor Bears were far too busy winning games, including a 40-0 championship season in 2012, to be distracted by Griner's personal life. Griner's orientation also hasn't damaged her career; she was the top pick in the WNBA draft.

Why Griner's story got so little love from the media is probably a combination of a number of factors. Obviously, in the 32 years since Navratilova came out, dozens of other women athletes—many of them stars in their sports—have also come out. Another lesbian is good at sports? Yawn.

But it's probably more than familiarity at work. As America began having a discussion of the role of women in the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s, a similar conversation about women in sports was ignited by the passage of Title IX in 1972. Slowly at first in the 1970s and 1980s, then more rapidly beginning in the 1990s, Americans have come not just to accept women in sports, but to embrace women athletes. Along the way, as America was getting used to women being doctors, lawyers, engineers, and politicians, America was getting comfortable with women getting sweaty, physical, even manly while playing sports. Because lesbians have been openly playing sports since the early days of the modern women in sports movement, the idea of lesbian athletes was never any more threatening to American men than the idea of women athletes in general. That's not to say lesbians don't face many of the same prejudices as gay men do in America. It's just that lesbians are ten or fifteen years ahead of gay men, at least when it comes to sports.

* * * * *

Of course, there is one prejudice unique to the male locker room that gay men must face. It has to do with why straight dudes think adding a second woman to the bedroom (or their latest porn download) is freaky in a hot, my-bros-will-never-believe-this way, but adding a second dude is freaky in an awkward, don't-cross-the-swords way. It's why straight guys who see two girls kissing at the bar cheer, but flip out if two guys do the same thing.

OK boys—and I'm assuming here that 98% of Ocelot Sports readers are red-blooded American straight male sports fans—it's time for you to go pour yourself a manly drink. Make it three fingers of bourbon, neat. Or maybe a nice 18-year old Scotch with just a few drops of water to open it up. Or my summer drink of choice—PatrĂ³n silver on the rocks, with a wedge of lime—if you want to go fancy. Just make sure it's something that'll put hair on your tastefully manscaped chest.

Because it's high time we had a little bro-talk about your junk.

Look, it's no secret male athletes like their junk. A little good-natured junk-joking, ball-tapping, crotch-grabbing, and sack-gesturing is part and parcel of the straight male sports experience. Purely on a no-homo basis, obviously.

It's disappointing, but hardly surprising, that almost all of the sports media who spewed half-baked analysis about the Collins story completely avoided the junk issue. Even the few brave souls who dared approach the junk issue did so with timid euphemisms like "player discomfort" and "locker room distractions."

C'mon sports media! We can get a literal blow by blow account of Rick Pitino—coach of the reigning NCAA Men's Basketball Champion Louisville Cardinals—getting it on with an equipment manager's wife in a restaurant, leading to allegations of an abortion and blackmail, but a frank discussion of the perceived problem of gay men sharing locker rooms with straight men is too sordid, too disturbing to mention? Grow some balls!

The sports media was forced to confront the gays in the locker room issue earlier this year, however, when San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver spouted off prior to the Super Bowl that gays would not be welcome in the locker room:
"I don't do the gay guys man. I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. Naw, can't be in the locker room man. Naw."
Culliver's guardian, Murray Pool, Jr., doubled down and blamed the media for even asking Culliver about gays in sports:
"At the same time, even if the question was asked on a serious note, he couldn't have answered it the right way. If Chris would have said, “No, it’s okay, I agree with homosexuals playing with me, it’s totally fine,” then people would have questioned Chris’ homosexuality in himself. If he would have said, “No comment,” people would have questioned whether there are homosexuals on the 49ers. Chris said what he said. Next thing you know, the world turns him into Adolf Hitler or something. In my opinion, it’s a lose, lose question any way he answers it."
But even "no gays in my locker room" still obscures the real issue. NBA All-Star and MVP LeBron James touched on the issue in 2007 when he expressed concern about a gay player sharing the showers with his straight teammates. More recently, LSU head football coach Les Miles stated he would have to take into account locker room and hotel room issues if a gay player came out on his team. According to those who are uncomfortable with gay athletes in the locker room, people are just "making straight guys feel guilty about not wanting to be looked at by gay guys." And let's be blunt here, it's not just that these straight guys don't want to be looked at, it's mostly about the "straight guy who doesn't want his junk oogled."

Ahh, yes, there's the rub. The gay guy who plays sports so he can scope out straight guy junk every day. One of those gay bogeymen trotted out to justify bigotry. Closely related to the gay soldier who might shower or bunk with a straight soldier just to ogle some straight junk. Just another example of those icky gay predators lurking out there threatening to assault straight men, and maybe even make them gay.

Boys, it's time for that drink. Because I'm about to blow your mind.

Gay dudes have already seen your junk. 

It's a simple matter of statistics. If, like most sports-loving straight American men, you played team sports on any level whatsoever from high school age on, or if you even just belong to a local fitness club, you have shared locker rooms with a lot of guys. Some of them have seen your junk. Some of them were gay. And your junk is still safe.

Look, gay men are in the locker room for the same reason as their straight counterparts—for the business of working out. Contrary to the fantasy world of bad TV shows and worse porn, the dirty, stinky reality of male locker rooms is not particularly conducive to sexual tension. Sure, just like some straight men, some gay men are pigs. If a gay guy gets all creepy and inappropriate, there are both legal and informal ways to handle the situation, same as a straight guy who gets all creepy and inappropriate with a woman. But here's the thing, most gay guys are not interested in flirting with or hitting on straight guys, for the same reasons straight guys don't flirt with or hit on married women—why waste time on someone who is unavailable? Or, hard as this might be for straight guys to fathom, quite likely you "just aren't their type".

Male athletes once offered up the "player discomfort" and "disruption of the locker room" canards when resisting the movement to permit women reporters into the locker room. Straight male athletes seem to have adapted to the presence of women in the locker room with no effect on their athletic performance. Presumably they can do the same for gay teammates.

* * * * *

Once we get past the absurdity of the straight male junk-ogling fears, the real stumbling block for gay athletes is laid bare. Unlike the general acceptance of lesbians in women's sports, straight men simply have not yet gotten comfortable with the idea of gay male athletes. Straight men continue to view the world through a prism of masculinity in which being an athlete means being a hyper-masculine man. There's a reason why many straight male coaches and athletes use "faggot" and "pussy" interchangeably as the sharpest insults toward players who are perceived as weak. It's not a coincidence that three of the four major North American professional sports—football, baseball, and hockey—essentially have no analogue for women athletes. Only basketball, with the NBA-subsidized WNBA league, offers a professional level opportunity for women players. American professional sports, along with their big money college feeder programs, remain the province of manly men.

Of course, Collins personally demolishes the "gay men are wimps" stereotype, as do other notable "out" athletes like professional rugby player Gareth Thomas, professional soccer player Robbie Rogers, Olympic and professional boxer Orlando Cruz, and retired NFL linemen Kwame Harris and Esera Tuaolo. "Macho" straight athletes like NBA star Charles Barkley, NHL star Sean Avery, and NFL star Michael Irvin—just to name a few high profile examples—also lend their support to gay athletes. Still, the He-Man-Woman-And-Gay-Haters Club mentality is all too common among male athletes. LSU running back Alfred Blue expressed this sentiment rather candidly in a recent interview:
Football is supposed to be this violent sport—this aggressive sport that grown men are supposed to play. Ain’t no little boys out here between them lines. So if you gay, we look at you as a sissy. You know? Like, how you going to say you can do what we do and you want a man?
This quote encapsulates the real story behind Collins' coming out: the problem of entrenched straight male stereotypes about gay men as sissy boys incapable of being real men. It's an issue the mainstream sports media continually breezes past, choosing to focus instead on how gay men are becoming more comfortable in the straight male-dominated world of sports. America has had a four decade long conversation about the role of women in society, and women are now, by and large, routinely accepted as the equals of men in many "traditional" male roles. Lesbian women have contemporaneously gained acceptance along with straight women, even—and especially—in many highly masculine pursuits such as sports and the military. Yet gay men lag badly in similar acceptance into the those arenas which are the province of the most masculine of straight guys. And without a frank conversation about straight male misperceptions of gay men, gay athletes will continue to feel pressure to conform to masculine stereotypes, including pressure to stay in the closet in order to be "one of the guys".

Admittedly, the problem does not lie solely at the feet of straight men. Gay men, too, buy into the "gay men aren't real men" conceit. Even within the gay community there is a schism between gay men who are more masculine, whose interests align with more traditional male pursuits, who pass more readily as straight, and those gay men who are less traditionally masculine, whose interests align more with traditional female pursuits, who appear more stereotypically gay. The mean-spirited comments directed by straight males toward gay men often are matched or even exceeded by the derogatory comments from "straight-acting" gays toward their "flamer" brethren. Collins even alludes to this masculine-feminine divide in his coming out story:
I'm not afraid to take on any opponent. I love playing against the best. Though Shaquille O'Neal is a Hall of Famer, I never shirked from the challenge of trying to frustrate the heck out of him. (Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.) My mouthpiece is in, and my wrists are taped. Go ahead, take a swing -- I'll get up. I hate to say it, and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher.
I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I've always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn't make you soft? Who knows? That's something for a psychologist to unravel.
Regrettably, Collins both articulates and validates the demeaning straight male prejudice about gay men:  Being gay means you might take on a feminine role. Being a woman is being weak. Thus, being gay means being weak. And the one thing a real man cannot be, is weak. So, when it comes to sports, only manly men need apply.

Because talking about masculinity stereotypes is uncomfortable, the media took the easy route, covering the Collins story from the perspective of what Collins' coming out means to gay athletes. But the importance of Collins' announcement is that it actually highlights a critical straight male issue—Will straight men choose to accept openly gay men as fellow athletes, teammates, competitors, and fans? Gays who enjoy sports and gays who are athletes are not looking for acceptance as "gay sports fans" or "gay athletes". They would rather just be "sports fans" and "athletes" who happen to be gay. It is straight men who make gay men feel like outcasts when it comes to sports, and it is those straight men who must choose to change how they perceive and treat gay men so that gay men feel welcome in the sports world.

* * * * *

There is one final observation to sift out of the bullshit spewed by most of the media in their fawning coverage of the "Collins comes out" story: No matter how many times it gets written or said, Collins is no gay hero. 

First and foremost, despite the lure of the facile analogy, Jason Collins is not Jackie Robinson. When Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball, he was forced to blaze his own trail in a country where Jim Crow laws and racial violence were current events. Collins is treading a path well-mapped out by others, a path which nowadays has few notable obstacles or pitfalls. Robinson was sui generis, Collins was derivative.

More to the point, Collins is a poor gay role model. Certainly Collins has shown class, dignity, and grace in coming out. Yet his public coming out was neither brave nor courageous. There are thousands of American kids in high schools and colleges who come out as gay each year, despite the fear of rejection by their parents, families, and friends. These gay kids are the ones who risk physical or mental abuse or even outright abandonment by their parents, along with bullying and social ostracization by their peers, merely for being openly gay or even just being perceived as gay. It's no surprise that rates of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide are markedly higher in gay teens than their straight counterparts. Many of these younger gays are also athletes openly out to their sports teams (something true even back in the 1990s and early 2000s). These openly gay kids are the truly brave and courageous heroes whose stories should be covered by the media. It is these open and honest younger gays who actually influence their straight peers and sway them toward acceptance and support of gay equality. They are true role models.

By contrast, Collins stayed closeted during the entire portion of his career when coming out might have been even remotely risky. While in the closet, Collins had a successful college career, followed by a 12-year professional career in which he earned over $30 million in salary alone; not bad for a journeyman role player whose best skill is being tall. Collins waited to come out until he knew his professional career was on the wane, and with the comfort of knowing his family would likely be supportive. Collins also came out amidst great public anticipation for a major pro athlete to acknowledge being gay, with a friendly media eagerly waiting to spin the story in a positive light. And let's just note that most gays come out without receiving supportive Tweets from folks like Kobe Bryant or Bill Clinton.

The overwhelmingly positive public reception for Collins is no surprise. During recent years, work by groups such as Athlete Ally and the You Can Play Project have organized educational outreach to athletes and the media to help lay the groundwork for public acceptance of gay athletes. The commissioners of every major sports league have publicly declared support for gay athletes, as have scores of sports stars. Public support and acceptance of gays and lesbians is at an all-time high. It's great that Collins chose to come out, but let's not forget he also chose to let others do most of the heavy lifting.

The one redeeming grace of the Collins story is that the sports media has shot its "Gay Watch 2013" wad. We can be done with the overblown hype surrounding the inconsequential question, "Who will be the first gay male athlete to come out?" Instead, we can focus on the harder question: "This is 2013, not 1983. If you're a gay professional athlete, what's your excuse for staying in the closet?"

Grange95  (a/k/a Michael M.) is a lawyer and poker player from Iowa. He's the author of the crAAKKer poker blog. He also happens to be both a sports fan (Huskers, Packers, whoever is playing Duke) and a gay dude.