What's that you say? It's almost Christmas and you haven't bawled your eyes out over some sort of Christmas-related commercial? Well, it's time we put an end to that. Here's Apple's Christmas ad to really get the waterworks going for you. Merry Christmas! (NOTE: Haven't had much time to write the last couple of weeks but I've got a couple of doozies headed your way soon. Stay tuned.)
This week, as they do every year, ESPN is hosting Jimmy V Week across all of its networks in an effort to raise money for cancer research. This is a particularly big year, however, as it marks the 20 year anniversary of Jimmy Valvano's iconic speech that serves as the theme for this event. I assume most of you have seen parts of the speech and know the general story but given that it is such a big anniversary and that the speech itself has lost none of its power (and given that I'm very busy this week and haven't had much time to write anything else), I thought it fitting that it find a place here this week. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this thing and it still wrecks me every time. Give it a watch and consider donating to the V Foundation if you can.
A little background for anyone who doesn't know: Valvano was a very popular, very successful college basketball coach in the 70s and 80s and won the title in 1983 at NC State. He was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1992 and dedicated the remainder of his life to cancer research. The speech below was delivered at the 1993 ESPY Awards where he received the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. Despite how great and dynamic he looks on camera, those in attendance that night didn't believe he would ever make it to the stage and he died only a couple of months later. He was a great coach and an even greater man.
First off, let me just say that Sick Baby is by far my least favorite baby. I had some great stuff to share with you guys this week but Sick Baby popped up and wrecked pretty much everything. Sick Baby is no joke, guys. Fortunately, Sick Baby has reverted back to his normally cheery King Baby self so with a little rest, next week is going to be awesome around here.
In the meantime, I present to you a great video short featured on ESPN's E:60 a few weeks ago. If you've never seen E:60before, it's basically a news magazine (think The CBS Sunday Morning Newswhich is also great) that chronicles important/inspirational stories related to the world of sports. It's an excellent program and you should watch it. I've been catching up on my E:60s today, which basically amounted to an entire day of weeping uncontrollably which is probably healthy, right? Anyway, I came across this video featuring Steve Gleason and the members of Pearl Jam. Gleason was a special teams standout for the New Orleans Saints in the last decade who has since been diagnosed with ALS. Pearl Jam is...well, Pearl Jam. Maybe the biggest rock band in the world and probably my personal favorite. Gleason and the band have become intertwined through Gleason's fundraising for ALS research and the band asked him to interview them in advance of their new album that came out last week (which is magnificent, by the way). Check out the video and be prepared for much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
NOTE: You'll have to forgive this departure from my regularly scheduled mildly amusing stories about my kid and movie-related shenanigans for this brief tangent into the world of sports. We'll get back to normal tomorrow.
Yesterday, in a press conference before the Philadelphia 76ers opening game of the season, former superstar Allen Iverson announced his retirement. It wasn't an unexpected event; a 38 year old point guard who hasn't played in the NBA in over three years doesn't exactly draw a lot of interest from most teams even if the guy comes equipped with a sparkling reputation which Iverson most certainly does not. Still, it was a somber moment for me to see one of my all-time favorite athletes, a hero of weird sorts, officially walk away from the game he made better for 14 seasons.
I love sports in general but basketball was my first love and it will always be the game I gravitate to with the most passion. In my lifetime, I have had three favorite athletes, all of them basketball players. When my basketball odyssey began in 1991, Derek Harper became my hero and his tough, fundamentally sound playing style made him a fantastic sporting role model for a kid who desperately wanted to play basketball for a living but lacked, shall we say, EVERYTHING that one needs to make that happen. And in the early to mid 2000s, Dirk Nowitzki reached his prime and eventually became the all-encompassing force of awesomeness he is now, leading my beloved Mavericks to the title I had literally dreamed about for 20 years. But in the interim between Harper's retirement and Nowitzki's rise to prominence, my go-to guy, my favorite player, my hero as it were, was Iverson, a guy who was pretty much the exact opposite of what Harper and Nowitzki represented.
Iverson (who became known as "The Answer", which is probably a top ten nickname ever) was brash, flashy, and thugged out before that term had even been invented. He came from the projects and he had a troubling past but instead of ducking that or shying away from it, he owned it and wore his lifestyle for all to see, flaws and all. He made a ton of mistakes, released a relatively graphic hip-hop song, and sported the tattoos and cornrows look in an era that didn't accept such things. On the court, he played a style of basketball that we hadn't seen before. He threw up a ton of shots, didn't seem to like passing the ball, and carried himself in such a way that one might believe he would just as soon stab you rather than shoot over you. Put simply, he had an edge that no other player in the league had at that time. All of this made it nearly impossible for White America to embrace him. Iverson was the personification of what was wrong with sports to many a veteran basketball fan because he didn't "play the right way" and, whether they would say it out loud or not, he definitely didn't look the right way.
But I loved him. I loved him because he played this game that I cared so deeply about in a way that no one else did. He was a small guy, listed as six feet tall but really he was closer to 5'10 and under 170 pounds, but he threw his body around like someone with the physique of a Lebron James. He relentlessly drove to the hoop, often taking a smack and a face plant into the ground for his troubles and yet he would get up, shake it off, and do the same thing on the next play. It did not matter how many times you knocked him down, Allen Iverson was coming right back at you, over and over again, and he was coming to KILL YOU. He was intimidating in a way that smaller players never are because he always knew he was the toughest guy on the court. He also had this ability to command your attention. You'd be watching a Sixers game and then you'd realize that you have absolutely no idea what was happening in the rest of the game because your eyes were locked on Iverson the entire time. And the best part was, he knew you couldn't take your eyes off of him and he used that to his advantage. He had a flair for doing spectacular things in the biggest moments when you got the feeling that he was feeding off the spotlight.
Perhaps most importantly for me, and the thing that I don't think people have given him enough credit for, was the constant, all-out nature of his game. In a very famous press conference during which he was confronted by the media over his propensity for sitting out in practice, he responded with a classic line that allowed people to write him off as a guy who didn't care enough about the team to do the important things, like practice. (Never mind the fact that most NBA teams only actually "practice" about 20 times a season, total.) I saw the other side of this, though. I saw a guy who literally left everything he had on the floor every night. I saw a guy who competed harder than anybody else the night before and didn't have anything left to give the next morning. It has always bothered me that, in the midst of a horde of underachieving athletes who simply didn't care enough to try to be great every single night (Shaquille O'neal is a notorious example), we would focus in on the practice habits of a guy who had just spent the previous night carrying a terrible team on his back in an all-out effort to get a win. Iverson was ALWAYS playing as hard as he possibly could and that probably took two or three years off of his career.
Iverson's accomplishments were immense: 11-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, League MVP, 7-time All-NBA team, 4-time NBA scoring champion, and a Finals berth that gave us one of the greatest moments in NBA history and saw the man take a terrible team to heights it had no business enjoying. (The other important players on that team were Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, Matt Geiger, George Lynch, Todd MacCulloch, and Dikembe Mutombo. If you're a passing sports fan and you've heard of any of those guys, it's Mutombo and it's because of this Geico commercial. They were AWFUL.)
And yet, throughout his career, he was a lightning rod for fans and his presence created a sort of line-in-the-sand for his fans. Those of us who loved him, a small club that gets smaller by the day, rallied around him and defended him to the death which, career wise, came far too soon due to his reputation (which I would deem to be unfair) as a ball hog and a gunner. His detractors, always the larger group I would say, have grown as his distance from the game has lengthened and while there was never any convincing this group of Iverson's true greatness, he has now become almost a punchline to the smug majority that never appreciated him in the first place. He was always overrated, they say, a guy who only cared about himself and the stats he put up, and whose greatness was marginal at best. His off-court issues (a battle with alcoholism and the likelihood that he will soon be broke) certainly haven't helped.
For my money, though, Allen Iverson will always be a singularly bright spot in a sky filled with stars. He was supremely imperfect and didn't conform in the way people wanted their sports heroes to conform, but he played a style of basketball that will never be forgotten and, I think, will never be replicated. He left it all on the court every single time out and that total competitiveness and constant will be, for me, his lasting legacy: Allen Iverson, my flawed hero.
NOTE: My vacation journal is taking longer to complete than I expected so I'll have that out early next week for those of you who care.
It is truly against my nature to heap praise on the New York Yankees. While I love the history of the game's greatest franchise, George Steinbrenner turned them into a monstrosity and it will be many years before they are able to recover from that in my eyes. But if there's one good thing about the Yankees, it's Mariano Rivera. The greatest closer in the history of the game, Rivera is also one of the classiest guys around and a man who has done great things with his celebrity. He's a dominating force on the mound the likes of which has been unparalleled in my lifetime (and he'll also be the last player to ever wear number 42, Jackie Robinson's number, which was retired in 1997). After 19 seasons in the Big Leagues, this is Rivera's final season and with the Yankees stinking it up this year, there will be no playoffs in New York.
As such, last night was his final appearance in Yankee stadium. Down 4-0, manager Joe Girardi brought Rivera into the game in the top of the 9th (for the uninitiated, Rivera would normally only pitch in a win-able game) and after he recorded the first two outs, Girardi took him out in order to give the Yankee fans an opportunity to cheer Rivera one last time. But instead of going to get him himself (as is customary), Girardi sent Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter (two long-time Yankee teammates who came up with Rivera and have been alongside him for much of his career) to take him off the field for the last time in Yankee Stadium. If you can sit through this without choking up, you may need therapy.
There's really not much to say here except: 1.) I love this man. 2.) It is very likely that there is not a more gloriously self-aware athlete in any American sport. 3.) Should we ever have another boy, I am going to do everything in my power to name him Dirk. This must happen.
My usual morning routine goes something like this: Get up. Bring Cooper downstairs. Try desperately to get him to laugh and/or smile. Give up when he makes it clear that all he's interested in drinking as much formula as humanely possible RIGHT NOW. Let the dog outside before she pees on the floor out of nervous excitement that someone said her name. Get Cooper's bottle ready. Sit down to feed him while watching SportsCenter. Pretty normal all around.
Today I added something new to that routine:
WEEP UNCONTROLLABLY ALL OVER MY NEWBORN SON.
Because that's what happens when SportsCenter plays a tremendous feature on soldiers coming home and surprising their families; you weep uncontrollably. See for yourself. Easily one of the best things ESPN has done in a decade.
Note: I know that on the surface this post may seem like a departure from the baby-related content this website is supposed to be pushing. But I promise it ties in so give a read anyway. Also, this is my website and I'll write about whatever I want and if you don't like it, you can leave. But also, please don't leave. I need you now.
Two years ago yesterday, the Dallas Mavericks clinched their first NBA Championship with a Game 6 win over the hated Miami Heat. It was, without question, the best sports/pop-culture related moment of my life and probably a top five day in my life, period. (Okay, it’s definitely a top five moment and probably top three but I don’t want all of you to judge me too harshly for this.) It is highly unlikely that any sports moment will EVER mean more to me than that win did unless Cooper realizes his sports potential and leads the Mavs to a title in, like, 2035 or something. When the final buzzer rang and the team ran onto the court to celebrate, I wept and that feeling of absolute elation carried on for, literally, MONTHS afterward. I still get chills (and maybe some leaky eyes) when I think about that series. There are a number of reasons why this particular title run was so special but here are three of them:
1.) Because of Dirk. There are any number of athletes that hold a special place in my Sports Heart for one reason or another but none of them have ever been as important to me as a fan as Dirk is. Even in my youth, when Derek Harper was my role model, the level of devotion I had was less than it is toward Dirk. If any athlete ever truly deserved to win a title, it was him;
2.) Because it was Good triumphing over Evil. Miami was built in a day through collusion and (I assume) witchcraft with Lebron James infamously joining forces with Dwyane Wade the summer before and bringing Chris Bosh along with him. They were a gaudy collection of superstars who, in the minds of many, essentially cheated the system in order to create an easier road to championships. Dallas, meanwhile, was built over time, a true team that gelled together perfectly when everyone thought their window was closed. The Mavs did it the right way and for once, were rewarded for their efforts;
3.) Because it took 20 years. This is the biggest factor in my love for this team and for the championship they earned. It’s something that not everyone can truly understand and it’s what this piece is all about.
I went to my first Mavericks’ game in early 1992. It was, I believe, the second professional sporting event I’d ever been to and to that point I couldn’t have cared less about any sport, let alone basketball. But those three hours spent in Reunion Arena completely changed my life. I was hooked on the sport almost immediately and became obsessed with all things relating to this game that I’d known nothing about previously. (This love was cemented a few weeks later when Christian Laettner hit “The Shot”, illustrating to me how incredible winning basketball could really be.) I watched or listened to just about every game the following season and before long, I lived and breathed Maverick basketball.
It should be noted, then, that living and breathing Maverick basketball in 1992 was akin to willingly allowing someone to stab you with a rusty knife and then coming back the next night for another stabbing. That first year (92-93), the Mavs won 11 games. Total. The next year they got all the way up to 13 and traded my hero, Derek Harper, at mid-season (I cried all night and could barely hold myself together at school the next day). The next year they drafted Jason Kidd and things started to look up (36 wins) but everything fell apart again in ‘95 and before long I found myself a devout, zealous fan of a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in a decade. Everyone I knew was a fan of the team of the day (either the Bulls, the Rockets, or the Lakers) but I steadfastly returned to the Mavs year after year, bad draft after bad draft, losing season after losing season, always hopeful that the new group would be better while knowing deep down that Cherokee Parks and Chris Gatling were not the saviors I so desperately needed them to be.
The next decade, however, was pretty incredible. With Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash on the floor and a brash new owner, Mark Cuban, running the team, the Mavs became a perennial powerhouse. In 2001, they made the playoffs and even managed to advance to the second round by beating the favored Utah Jazz in five games. I was at that first home playoff game and it is, to this day, the best sporting event I’ve ever been at in person. The place was BONKERS. The next few years were filled with tremendous highs (an incredible series with Sacramento in ’03, Dirk dropping 50 on the Suns in ’06, an unlikely first round upset of the Spurs in ’09, and this) and heart-wrenching lows (first round exits in ’04, ’07, ’08, and ’10, the loss of Nash in ’04, and of course the gut-punch Finals loss in ’06) but always the team was competitive. After the loss in ’06 and the complete collapse in ’07, I convinced myself that I had to be content with the Mavs fielding a competitive team year after year that would never win the big one but each year, almost unwillingly, I talked myself into that particular squad’s merits and felt a severe sting when they were inevitably bounced out of the playoffs (usually by the bloody Spurs, whom I hate with the passion of a thousand suns).
Then came 2011. I’m not going to lie, I was completely unenthused about that team. In a summer that saw Lebron James, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, and a number of other big name free agents find new homes, the Mavs came away with only Tyson Chandler whose value I didn’t truly understand. But as the season wore on, it became apparent that there was something special about that team. They grinded out games like few teams do these days. A veteran team, every guy on the roster understood his role and filled it consistently. Chandler shored up the defense the way no other teammate of Dirk’s had ever done before and everything else fell into line perfectly. By the time they reached the Finals, the whole thing was starting to feel like destiny, a sensation I had seen other teams’ fans go through but had never experienced myself. In the closing seconds of that clinching Game 6, Dirk raised his arms above his head and looked around in complete shock, a feeling that I sympathized with given that I genuinely never thought that day would come.
And that’s what makes it so special. I had been a true, ardent, diehard fan of this franchise for 20 years when that title finally came to fruition. I had watched somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 games. I had put in countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears. I had considered giving up a few dozen times. I had come to the conclusion that it was never going to happen and yet I continually came back with half a hope. I had spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking up trades or free agency solutions that would solve the team’s problems. (I don’t even want to tell you how many spreadsheets on my computer have been dedicated to various trade scenarios and salary cap-related formulas. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m married to be honest with you.) In short, and this is what I’m getting at, I had struggled. Struggled with the tremendous number of losses early on, struggled with the playoff exits later, struggled with the departure of players I loved, struggled to find a way to come back for the next game, the next season, the next decade. I struggled for 20 years and 2011 was my reward. When it was all over, I felt like my life’s work had been completed and while I’m not sure I’ll ever capture that exact feeling again, it’s one that I believe I will never, ever forget.
I hope that this is something my son has occasion to experience. Not just the win, which is undoubtedly the cherry on the top of the very strange yet extremely satisfying sundae, but the struggle as well. That struggle bought me ownership in one of the greatest moments of my life and while it may just be a silly game to some people, the lessons I have learned through the experiences of those 20 years bleed through every facet of my life. So while I hope Cooper’s team of choice never hits rock bottom the way the early ‘90s Mavs did, I hope he’ll have the heart to ride out the bad times that will inevitably come his way in order to fully appreciate the good times down the road. Unless he somehow becomes a Spurs fan, in which case I hope they hit rock bottom and stink so badly for so long that he gives up and comes back to the Mavs where he belongs. Old wounds die hard.
Dirk for President 2024, Brian
P.S. Two years later and this video the Mavs played before their home Finals games still chokes me up.
Tomorrow the final episode of The Office will air and it will bring with it a shameful amount of tears from at least one blogger who shall remain nameless. I have a big post coming tomorrow to commemorate the event as best I can but in the meantime, any fan of the show needs to check out this video featuring John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, and others reflecting on their time on the show. Warning: Tissues may be required.
NOTE: There are very few subjects in which I would consider myself an expert. Basketball (and the NBA in particular) is one of them. By “expert” I mean, of all the people you know in real life, I know more about basketball and the NBA than 99% of them. That’s not meant to be bragging but rather as an illustration of my general lack of a life. I love basketball and I love the NBA and I happen to have a brain built for stats, facts, and meaningless trivia. Hence, “expert.” Having assembled all of this (useless) knowledge, it really bothers me to see so many people blaming this whole mess on the players when in fact I’d say it’s at least 80% the fault of the owners. But it should be noted that while I am presenting several facts in this piece, my opinion as to what all of this means may differ from your own. I just want people to be informed before they start throwing around blame.
I don't deviate from the "movies and TV" theme of the Soap Box Office very often. But on rare occasions, sports takes priority and since this is my only medium at the moment, I must commandere this space for a moment. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled (and completely irrelevant) movie ramblings tomorrow.
The Texas Rangers have just completed a historic playoff series victory. The TEXAS RANGERS won a playoff series. I have to keep repeating that to myself because it doesn’t feel real. I’m a little worried that this is some giant episode of “Punk’d” with the Universe playing the role of Ashton Kutcher. Like I’m going to wake up in the morning and the Sportscenter anchors will be laughing at the brilliant joke they’ve just pulled on us all. Linda Cohn will point into the camera and scream, “HA! Like you could EVER win a playoff series! You fools!” And I’ll just slump my shoulders and nod my head and know it to be true just like Luke Skywalker knew Darth Vader was telling the truth on that platform in Cloud City. (Anytime I can combine sports with “Star Wars” you know I’m doing it.) The last twenty years of Ranger baseball has conditioned me to expect utter failure and to be happy when the team wins enough to keep me interested until football season starts. So to win three playoff games (and all three on the road no less) seems almost out of the realm of possibilities.
It’s not easy to write a celebratory sports column in a moment like this. We haven’t won the World Series or anything like that and in fact, this is a pretty insignificant victory in the grand scheme of baseball things. The truth of the matter is Yankee fans don’t even know what it’s like to celebrate a Division Series victory. That’s just a small stepping stone on the path to another bought and paid for championship. But writing is what I do and when my team makes franchise history…come on, what the heck else am I supposed to do? I’m certainly not going to go to sleep anytime soon. So I’ll focus on a couple of small moments and hope I get a chance to write another victorious blog post in a couple of weeks.
There are four moments that really stuck out to me tonight that might have gone unnoticed.
MOMENT ONE – Bengie Molina Steals Second
Molina, the Ranger catcher known first for calling a great game behind the plate and second for being slower than a one legged tree sloth, led off the top of the third with a line-drive single. A couple batters later manager Ron Washington called for a hit-and-run on a 3-2 count. Batter Elvis Andrus swung and missed but the call caught the Rays so off guard that Molina managed to truck into second for a stolen base. This is the moment when I knew we were going to win. I didn’t voice this thought so as to keep from incurring the wrath of the sports gods but in my mind, I KNEW we had the win. If Bengie Freaking Molina is stealing bases, then you know you can do no wrong.
MOMENT TWO – Cliff Lee Strikes Out Carlos Pena
In the bottom of the third, Cliff Lee gave up a couple of weak hits that resulted in a run for the Rays. He had looked uncharacteristically erratic through three and he stepped up to face Carlos Pena to start the fourth inning. Pena crushed the Rangers in the last two games and I hate him for this. It’s not enough that he was a first round pick for the Rangers in the late 90’s and did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING the entire time he was in the organization. No, now he has to kill us in the postseason, too. Jerk. Lee works quickly, going low curve for a strike, high heat for a ball, inside fastball that was fouled off, and then ends it with a curveball that started at Pena’s shoulder and dropped beautifully into the zone. Lee had gone to the curveball a few times before that but this was the moment where I think everyone realized, “Crap, he’s got his stuff tonight.” After this pitch he routinely went back to the curve and worked it all over the plate, getting the Rays to swing at the balls in the dirt and watch the ones that hit the zone. In other words, he was unstoppable.
MOMENT THREE – Ian Kinsler Drives in the Final Nail
Okay, obviously a two run blast in the top of the 9th that puts the game away didn’t go unnoticed. What might have slipped under the rug, however, is that suddenly and out of nowhere, Ian Kinsler is clutch. I have mercilessly bashed on Kinsler at every opportunity over the last couple of years. On a team that is chock full of likeable players, Kins is an easy target for negativity. He comes across as arrogant, he swings at 3-0 pitches when he shouldn’t, he commits stupid errors in the field, and he routinely chokes when it matters most. Somewhere in the last month, though, Kinsler has gone from the guy who foolishly tries to win the game with every swing to a valuable, big play hitter. He hit a game winning double in the last week of the season followed by his huge bombs here in the ALDS. All three of his homers in this series were big, clutch hits. I’m not sure what’s turned it around for him but when the team’s long-time clutch bat Michael Young is slowing down and MVP Josh Hamilton is obviously still struggling with injury, Kinsler’s sudden dose of clutch hitting is greatly appreciated. I take back 87% of the things I’ve said about the guy.
MOMENT FOUR – A Ginger Ale Celebration
Josh Hamilton’s history of drug and alcohol issues have been reported ad nauseum so I’m not going to delve into that here. Suffice it to say, the Hambone simply CANNOT be around alcohol. When the Rangers clinched the division a few weeks ago, Hamilton had to skip out on the champagne-soaked post-game celebration, opting instead to spend the evening in a church. Things were a little different this time around. When Hamilton entered the clubhouse tonight, the champagne and beer were replaced by ginger ale. The guys all piled into the room, goggles on, and doused each other in bubbly soda so that their teammate and on-field leader could be involved in the celebration. It was just one more example of how ridiculously tight the Ranger clubhouse has been all season. From the Claw and Antlers to the endless barrage of post-win shaving cream pies, the guys on this team have created a firm bond with each other. That’s the only reason they’ve been able to succeed against near-impossible odds given all of the hardships the franchise has gone through this year. It was a seriously touching moment that I picked up on immediately and choked me up a bit. I’m honestly a little ticked that so many other media outlets caught hold of the story and that I’m easily the 4 millionth reporter, journalist, or blogger to write about it.
Of course there were a lot of other huge plays throughout this season, series, and game. (How in the world does Vlad score from second on an infield single?!) But these are the moments that stuck out to me as I paced the floor relentlessly and came close to nervous vomiting on numerous occasions. This is without question the biggest win in the history of the Ranger franchise but you get the feeling there are more wins to come. It’s time, yo.
I hear Christopher Lloyd is in town this weekend,
P.S. Lloyd was the head angel in “Angels in the Outfield” in case that reference was over your head.