Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

The parallels between Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong are fascinating. Both seized on real and imagined slights and then exaggerated them in their minds, making them much more scandalous than they were, in order to, as Lance says in ESPN’s Armstrong documentary “Get my hate on.” The angrier they were, the better they performed. Realizing that, they became expert at sparking their anger.

They also had a win at all costs approach to their respective sports; treating teammates, and in Lance’s case support staff, as means towards that one end. Apart from their athleticism, there was very little to admire about them.

The parallels haven’t been lost on other viewers of ESPN’s recent Jordan and Armstrong docs, which has caused people to conclude that you have to be an asshole to win six NBA Championships or Seven editions of the Tour de France.

To which I call bullshit. Nice guys don’t always finish last.

Among many other examples, Magic Johnson smiled his way to five NBA titles. Russell Wilson, a regular visitor at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, won the SuperBowl. Tom Brady never denigrated his teammates. Jack Nicklaus was universally liked and Adam Scott won the Masters.

And in 2017, Ron Byrnes won the Seattle Marathon’s 50-55 age group. And a lot of people are saying he’s the nicest guy of all.*

*this is potentially misleading

Is ESPN’s “The Last Dance” The Most Overrated Sports Documentary of All-Time?

ESPN’s documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls is getting serious buzz because there’s no competition. Current sports programming consists of reruns of “classic” games; or in the case of golf, tournaments; and forced National Football League trade and draft drama.

The documentary, based on the first two installments, underwhelms. There’s one way to judge docs. Do viewers with no prior interest in the subject become interested? And how much so? I’m already down with pro basketball, so I’m not the best judge, but I have a hard time imaging basketball agnostics jonesing for it after watching the first two episodes of The Last Dance.

It does have one redeeming value. Jordan’s unbelievable smoothness on the court never gets old. One day in 1984, after class, I was (once again) putting on a clinic in UCLA’s Wooden Center. In walked Jordan, in town to pick up the John Wooden award as college basketball’s best player for 1983-1984. Watching him that day school the UCLA varsity was like watching Baryshnikov in his prime. I can still see him effortlessly filling passing lanes and making steals with ease. It’s a shame no one thought of asking me to check him.

One other thing I’ve found somewhat interesting is Phil Jackson’s player-centered leadership. Which begs a question, what the hell happened to Jackson in New York? That’s the documentary I want to see. How does a coach go from the top of his profession to utter and total incompetence?

One other, other thing of interest, is Magic’s and Bird’s pointed, effusive praise of Jordan. In the LeBron versus Jordan debate, it’s worth noting that LeBron’s contemporaries don’t speak of him with the same reverence.

The fact that Pippen was grossly underpaid, the sole focus of Episode 2, is not nearly interesting enough to anchor the hour. And Jordan’s mistreatment of the General Manager, a subtheme, is just kind of pathetic. Except for learning about Jordan’s and Pippen’s family backgrounds, off the court, nothing about Jordan or Pippen inspires.

Instead of a zoom lens on Jordan, Pippen, and Krause, the producers should’ve used a much wider angle one. So far, viewers have learned absolutely nothing about what it was like to be a teammate of Jordans. Toni Kukoc, the silky smooth 6’11” Croatian great is invisible. Harper, Kerr, Longley, invisible.

Give me more of Jordan splitting defenders and elevating for mid-range jumpers (since we don’t see those anymore) and more of the high flying one arm sideway slams that I always found difficult to pull off. But even more than that, give me some subtleties, nuance, ambiguity as it relates to the whole team. Their success suggests the sum was more than the individual parts, but the documentary, so far at least, fails to illuminate that dynamic. And that is a fatal flaw.

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Pandemic Ponderings

  • I’m worried about one of the humble blog’s most faithful readers, MZ, who is the Seattle Mariners #1 fan. I hope she is doing okay without beisbol. Then again, as a Mariner fan, she’s proven to be extremely tough, so she’ll probably be fine.
  • Sigh. Tomorrow would be the men’s NCAA national championship basketball game between the surprise of the tournament, the UCLA Bruins, and Dayton.
  • If the Royal and Ancient really follows through on cancelling the The Open Championship, MZ and all of the humble blog’s loyalists should begin worrying about me. Why go on living?
  • The key to surviving our lockdown is going to bed with a clean kitchen. If I keep waking to a clean kitchen, I could do this for a very long time. Then again, I’m an introvert and I’ve been cutting my own hair for decades.
  • How much $ have I saved cutting my hair over the decades? Where is that $?
  • ESPN is considering televising a game of H-O-R-S-E. They are almost having as hard a time with this pandemic as the Trump administration.
  • After considerable thought, I’ve decided not to wear a mask and instead just pop the malaria pills I have leftover from my last trip to Africa.
  • To young scientists just getting going, epidemiology is sexy.
  • Pray for my soul. I will not be going to church on-line.

 

 

 

 

More Zach Lowe Genius

Because you can only take so much of President Big Stuff, more of the most astute NBA analysis going.

On rookie Memphis point guard Ja Morant.

“Morant is real . . . Morant. . . is absolutely electric with the ball. When he gets a head of steam, he can finish right through bigger defenders:The league is awash in water bug point guards who get inside the foul line at will. What separates the greats is the ability to explode through traffic to the rim instead of settling for floaters. Morant has that extra gear.

Morant is shifty in tight spaces. He has a knack for changing speed and direction with an abruptness that confuses defenders. He already is smart about weaponizing his speed as an off-ball cutter.

Teams are going under picks and daring Morant to shoot 3s. He is accepting some of those invitations and is 12-of-29 from deep — great early signs.

Like almost every rookie point guard, Morant has a long way to go on defense. He has the tools and grit to grow into a plus on that end. In his third NBA game, Morant swatted Kyrie Irving’s game-winning attempt at the buzzer and talked all sorts of trash. He looks like a star in every sense.”

And what about De’Aaron Fox?

“I’m a De’Aaron Fox true believer, but Fox’s early-season defense was disappointing: He was flat-footed, upright in his stance, not as engaged as he needed to be.”

Proving no one’s perfect, Lowe shoulda used “is disappointing”, “is flat-footed”, and “he needs to be” since we’re still in the early going.

And on Laker cast off Moe Wagner:

“Wagner might. . . be the leagues’ cheeriest teammate. Basket mics constantly pick him up shouting encouragement at teammates. I would purchase a Moe Wagner Encouragement app that reinforced positive life behaviors: ‘You are killing it on the treadmill, Zach! Great job ordering salad instead of fries! You’re taking a lot of steps today, Zach! Keep it up!'”

Postscript: Richie Z, Guilford College noon ball legend, checks all of Morant’s boxes except the “all sorts of trash”. That can be learned though.

What People Get Wrong About the NBA and Corona Del Mar High School

Alternative title: Why We Stereotype. Subtitle: Because our pea brains can’t handle complexity.

A sports-minded friend of mine likes soccer; Washington State Cougar football; and this time of year; the Stanley Cup playoffs. But don’t try talking professional basketball with him. He despises The Association because he decided a long time ago that the inmates are running the asylum.

College educated, and a successful professional, he’s like a lot of people who have negative preconceived notions about the league’s players. That because the minority of knuckleheads dominate the news. In fact, there’s greatness in the league, Exhibit A is Kevin Durant’s Most Valuable Player Award speech that you can watch here. Here’s a two-part challenge. Watch the first 4 minutes and then skip to the 22:50 mark and watch the last few. Try not to cry and try not to generalize about NBA players being brash, arrogant, everything that’s supposedly wrong with contemporary culture.

A Los Angeles Times story is titled “‘Prom draft’ reflects Newport Beach Culture, ex-official says“. Here’s the sordid heart of the article:

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school, alleging that the campus fostered a sexist and homophobic atmosphere. The civil rights suit stemmed from an incident in which three male athletes at the school posted a video on Facebook in which they allegedly used homophobic slurs, “outed” a student and threatened to rape and kill a female student.

Nearly a dozen students were expelled this year after it was discovered that a tutor who worked with some of the students accessed school computers and changed their grades.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials declined to comment on the prom controversy but in an email to parents, Corona del Mar High Principal Kathy Scott said she’d heard about an ongoing “prom draft” and that it appeared there was a similar draft last year.

“I need your help. I urge you to talk with your student(s) and discuss the seriousness of this type of activity,” Scott wrote. “I do not believe this is intended to be harmful, but this is not behavior that is consistent with our school’s outstanding reputation.”

Jane Garland, head of discipline for Newport Mesa Unified School District until she resigned this year, said some students there live up to stereotypes tied to Newport Beach. “There’s definitely issues at that school with certain students feeling entitled,” Garland told The Times. “The culture in Newport Beach is ridiculous and CDM personifies it.”

Garland should have stopped after saying some students feel entitled. Why? Because some CDM students may not be super wealthy and some who are may actually be mindful of their privilege. When addressing the school’s larger context, she could have said, “Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous as illustrated at times by some students at CDM.”

Based on his acceptance speech, Kevin Durant may be a better human being than he is a basketball player. Part of his likability is he doesn’t seek attention for his on or off-court accomplishments. ESPN is much quicker to detail the legal failures of the league’s knuckleheads than it is to describe players’ community service. Similarly, the LA Times is much quicker to detail the moral failings of some Southern California high schoolers than it is to tell the story of appreciative, selfless, ethical young people.

If it bleeds it leads. The end result? We succumb to the media’s knucklehead bias, a phenomenon that hardens our negative preconceived thoughts about people seemingly different than us.

I’ve never been on CDM’s campus, but here’s what I know to be true about it. Its students reflect the good and the bad of their parents. If Garland is right and Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous, then no one should be surprised by the aforementioned crises.

For better or worse, young people follow the lead of their parents. Kevin Durant is worthy of admiration because his mother has been for thirty years. Some CDM parents deserve scorn for a litany of parenting failures. Inevitably though, other CDM parents have more in common with Wanda Pratt, Kevin Durant’s mother, pictured below.

We struggle with nuance, subtleties, and ambiguity. In my alternative version of A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson shouts at all of us, “You can’t handle complexity!”

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The Most Valuable Person with the leagues best player for 2013-2014

 

What I’ve Been Reading

Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty? Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.”

The Tale of Two Schools. Fieldston and University Heights are in the same New York City borough but worlds apart. How much understanding between their students can a well-told story bring? A lot it turns out.

The Hunt for El Chapo. The story of how the world’s most notorious drug lord was captured. Sure to be a movie.

Louis C.K. Against the Common Core. When a comedian points out the way in which the current priorities don’t add up, it earns even the attention of those who haven’t thought much about school since they graduated. But the brutal math of the New York City school system is no laughing matter.”

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Entering students at my uni will read this novel and discuss it during orientation in early September. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that steadily gets more and more interesting up to the very end. After 50-75 pages, I may have set it aside if it hadn’t been “assigned”. The story of a family of five. The dad is a psychology professor at Indiana University. Recommended. It will resonant strongly with those most sympathetic to the animal rights movement.

Bill Simmon’s Big Score. How a failed newspaper writer built a new kind of media empire at ESPN. I’ve completely tired of Simmon’s act, but still found this an interesting “new journalism” case study. A few factoids. The four major sports are worth a combined $91.2b. ESPN’s worth $50.8b making it the most valuable media brand in the world. Bill Simmons has 2.6 million twitter followers, I’m up to 46. 

On deck—American Crucifixion by Alex Beam. The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.

In the hole—Family Life by Akil Sharma.

 

On Talent and Effortless Style

Fascinating essay last week by Don Van Natta, Jr. on the 1973 Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that 50 million Americans and I watched on television. I was eleven and still remember it.

Riggs was a masterful hustler who “stayed in the barn” early in high stakes tennis and golf matches, meaning he purposely played well below his potential to lure his opponent and other bettors into a false sense of accomplishment. Then, mid to late match, Riggs would “come out of the barn,” play as well as possible and ultimately win. The art was in the timing.

The most talented, compelling artists almost always appear to be at least partly in the barn. As if they always have another gear or two in reserve. That’s what makes their performances so compelling. My first memory of this phenomenon was probably around the “Battle of the Sexes” when I was awestruck by a televised Dionne Warwick performance. She seemed to be expending about a third of her energy. Here’s just one example from the video archives:

When My Betrothed dances, she’s partly in the barn. And when watching my friend Brian ride his bike, with his rhythmic high cadence, perfectly still body, and oh so steady pace, I think, “Damn, if only it were that easy.”

Lake Center Dive is an immensely talented and stylish, up-and-coming foursome that conveys that “partly in the barn” feeling big time. Dig these examples:

Of course, an individual or group can only make something look effortless when they combine natural talent, intense commitment, and serious preparation.

My Betrothed, Brian, and Lake Center Dive owe people like me, who try to compensate for a lack of talent through extra effort, with a huge debt of gratitude. The rough edges of our extra effort is what makes the truly talented appear so stylish in comparison.