Thus Spiked: A Football Blog

If you've followed our tags all year, you know we sometimes enjoy other dumb sports. So much so that we've dedicated a blog to America's favorite dumb sport, football!

It's called Thus Spiked and if you've enjoyed Negative Dunkalectics, we think you'll like this one as well. Check it out at, follow us on twitter and facebook, or click the links below for our first 3 entries:

Stay tuned for more here on Negative Dunkalectics as we countdown to the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season!
For exclusive commentary on basketball and culture, check out more Negative Dunkalectics, follow @negativedunks on Twitter, and become our fan on Facebook.

Minima Marino and “Send it in, Jerome”: Unbounded Personal Misery and Bliss via the Pitt Panthers

When I tell people that being a Pittsburgh sports fan has been a trying experience (to put it nicely), they often don’t relate. “Aren’t you from The City of Champions?” they ask me.

I suppose I am, but:
1. I’ve never watched a hockey game from start to finish in my life (unless you count playing Blades of Steel)

2. The Pirates have had more losing seasons in my life than the Washington Generals, and baseball is only a passing summer interest because the NBA and college football aren’t around.

3. I don’t root for the Steelers and don’t care much about the NFL.

4. We don’t have an NBA team and my habit of jumping on the bandwagon of underdog fast break-oriented teams has generally meant I inevitably watch them lose in the playoffs to a team with star players, tougher defense, and questionable officiating.

So when I say I’m a Pitt fan, I mean the University of Pittsburgh Panthers aka Pitt (basketball and football -- the two greatest college sports).

* * *

First, I will summarize the great history of Pitt football before I was born:

From 1915-1923, the legendary Pop Warner led the Panthers, and they claim national championships in 1915, 1916, and 1923. The 1915 team was known as the “Fighting Dentists” as over half of the team became Dentists or Doctors. The Spanish flu epidemic took so many lives of football players that much of that season ended up canceled, but they still claim a national title from those proud tooth-pullers. During this era, Pitt also played the first ever game broadcast via radio (thank you KDKA.) The increased interest lead to plans for an on-campus stadium and attracted a former Warner player, the Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie… whoops, I mean the Scottish immigrant, Dr. “Jock” Sutherland to take over as head coach.

"Jock" coached Pitt from 1924-1938. These years included three scoreless ties against powerhouse Fordham (Vince Lombardi being part of their “seven blocks of Granite” line), including one of the most controversial finishes in football of that era (if Fordham football was still relevant, I’m sure we’d debate it to this day.) Anyway, Sutherland’s overall record was 111-20-12, including 79! shutouts. His vaunted version of single wing offense helped make a star out of Marshall Goldberg and his “dream backfield”. Even better than the five national titles the University claims from this era for me is that Sutherland never lost to Penn State as a player OR coach (and only lost to West Virginia once.)

Pitt then deemphasized athletics by eliminating various subsidies, reducing practice time, and trying to have a more academic focus in student athletics. This lead to decades of decline, though there were still bright spots like star running back Jimmy Joe Robinson, the first African American player for Pitt; the play of Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt; and the first African player in a Southern bowl game against a Southern opponent, Bobby Grier. Pitt lost that game against Georgia Tech while protests persisted against the integrated Panthers taking their team to the Sugar Bowl on a controversial interference call. Mike Ditka and Marty Schottenheimer were other products of this extended period. And, actually, Pitt had one season with an outside chance for a return to national title glory, which was cut short by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The assisination lead to the postponement of the Panther's annual rivalry game against Penn State. Without the results of the Penn State game in place, and despite a #4 ranking, Pitt was not invited to any bowl games, and finished the season ranked #3, perhaps the best team in modern football not to get an invitation to a bowl game.

Johnny Majors was hired by Pitt in 1973, and quickly overturned the eastern independent “gentleman’s agreement” about limiting the number football scholarships handed out per year. Majors and his top rate staff went out and recruited roughly 100 players to one freshman class and put them through a brutal camp. He told them the football axiom, “those who stay will play -- and those who play will be champions.” Much of the team didn’t survive the summer work outs, but enough stayed to build the core of a team that went undefeated and win the 1976 national title and Tony Dorsett a Heisman trophy. This would however be Pitt’s most recent AP “mythical” national championship in football.

Overall, my point was Pitt had a proud history before I could enjoy it. I love studying it, but I didn’t get the emotional high that came through living vicariously through it that older fans did.

* * *

I was born in January 1980 at Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Strange and negative things started happening to Pitt around this time.

Another southerner, Jackie Sherrill took over for Majors. “Jackie” brought in incredible talent from Mississippi, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, the metro DC area, and beyond. His teams were loaded with future NFL stars like Dan Marino, Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green, Russ Grimm, Mark May, and Bill Fralic. The 1980 team sent 30 players to the NFL (23 starters!) and two more to the Canadian Football League and USFL. Bobby Bowden called the 1980 Panthers “the best college football team I’ve ever seen.”

So what’s the problem? Well Sherrill had a streak of a 33-3 across three seasons but each of those three losses kept Pitt from winning an AP national title. One was a bizarre loss to Florida State in a game who's legend increases every time I hear about it. Various versions of the story include the idea it was played in a tsunami, that the Florida State punter averaged 90 yards per punt, and that the Pitt players recruited from the state of Florida had been so busy partying with family and friends that they were too hung-over to show up to the game. Other painful losses in the Sherill era included a dropped game against North Carolina, a blunder against Notre Dame, and probably the worst of all: a 48-14 ass whopping at the hands of arch-rival Penn State. Pitt had been ranked #1 in the land in 1982, but after the 48-14 debacle (a game in which Pitt had lead 14-0!), they have never been ranked #1 in football again.

After this 1973-1983 golden decade, Pitt started to become simply a bad team. Ultimate “Pitt man” Foge Fazio struggled trying to handle the head coaching job; Mike Gottfried was pushed out due to concerns about him fighting the improved academic standards the University put into place; and Paul Hackett proved a better offensive coordinator than head coach. A desperate rehire of Johnny Majors was a flat out disaster. I've heard there were even been whispers of dropping down to division I-AA. Pitt also joined the Big East conference, which it has henceforth never won outright.

A new chancellor and athletic director made the unpopular decisions to change from “Pitt” to “Pittsburgh”, dropped the classic “script” logos, and drew up plans to move away from their on-campus stadium. All three moves proved controversial to this day with the fan base, whatever their merits. But the hire of Walt Harris brought an improvement in the stature of the Panthers, as players like Larry Fitzgerald and Tyler "'I'm so f**king proud of this team' live on NBC" Palko became favorites of his pass-friendly offense.

After an embarassing loss to an undefeated Urban Meyer Utah team in their only BCS bowl, Harris was then pushed out for Dave Wannstedt, the mustached "yinzer" who couldn’t have been more proud of getting the job he had dreamed of ever since he saw the Cathedral of Learning from the steel mill he worked at as a young man.

During the Wannstedt years, I have had season tickets, attended every home game, and followed the team religiously so I'll go into a bit more detail here.

The "Wanny" era got off to a rough start. The very first game of his tenure was also the first of Charlie Weis’. And Notre Dame beat down Pitt at Heinz Field in a game I hope I can forget. But it got worse. It’s one thing to watch a football team lose 63-28 to a national power like Ohio State – but it was another to watch teams in the Wannstedt era lose to Ohio University.

But hope sprung eternal! Despite some embarrassing losses to schools that most teams put on their schedule for automatic wins, Wanny was recruiting like a champion. LeSean “Shady” McCoy was the sort of singular player that can make you feel upbeat about an entire program in a way I had never really felt before. The defensive line was stocked with the sort of talent Walt Harris couldn’t bring in. Pitt had NFL coaches and were producing NFL players again. A 13-9 defeat of West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl™ was the greatest moment of sports fandom in my life. The only thing I can remotely compare it to in terms of pure bliss is having a child.

So what happens when you get your hopes up for Pitt any time in the last 30 years, complete with a pre-season rank in the AP poll? You get them crushed. In 2008, after the excitement of the season was dashed by a home loss to BOWLING GREEN. The “Fire Wannstedt!” chants spread through the stadium. But Pitt managed to get my hopes back up by winning 9 games, beating West Virginia again, and advancing to the Brut Sun Bowl. So what happens when my hopes go up for the Sun Bowl and their first 10 win season since Jackie Sherrill? They lose 3-0 in one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever watched, complete with a Matt Cavanaugh offensive game plan of throwing deep fade passes in swirling wind.

2009 would have to be better, right? Picked to win the conference, the Panthers came out strong with a 9-1 record, and earned a #8 national ranking. Freshman running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham helped Pitt earn the reputation as an up-and-coming running back factory. All Pitt had to do to win their first outright Big East championship was beat West Virginia OR Cincinnati. This is where the real hurt began.

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Back Yard Brawl was again played in Morgantown in front of 55,000 drunk Mountaineers in Daniel Boone caps (and 500 sober Mountaineers in baseball caps.) Tied 16-16, West Virginia kicked a field goal as time expired to earn bragging rights.

Well, there is always next week, right? Surely Pitt could beat Cincinnati at home in the defacto Big East championship game. Especially in the snow. Especially with an extra day’s rest. Especially with a 7-1 all time record against the Bearcats. It sure seemed that way as the Panthers started the game up 31-10 and I began “over-rated!” chants against the visitors section next to me (Cincy came into the game with a small national title hope.) But the curse of my birth into Pitt fandom struck again as Tony Pike picked apart the Pitt defense. Dion Lewis’ 47(!) carries for 194 yards or his touchdown with 1:36 left in the game wasn’t enough. Tony Pike threw a 30 yard touchdown pass with 33 seconds remaining. Pitt had just missed an extra point on a bad hold on the previous touchdown, but Cincinnati made theirs to win 45-44. A friend texted me as she walked across one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges downtown that “I’m crying right now. It’s embarrassing.” I was crying too.

After those heart breaking losses, Pitt won their bowl game to have their first 10 win season in my adult life, just in time for me to get my hopes up for 2010. They were a near-unanimous media pick to win the conference for the second straight year. Then they started losing again: first to Utah, then to Miami aka "The U", then to Notre Dame. All three big non-conference tests were big failures. But hey, wins against Syracuse, Rutgers, and Louisville meant winning two of their last three games would make them BCS bound thanks to a weak Big East conference.

Then Pitt lost to Connecticut 30-28 in a shameful coaching performance and lost the Backyard Brawl in true tailspin mode. Wanny was then fired, leaving many of us feeling conflicted about a man who loved the job as much as anyone could, but who never accomplished his mission of returning Pitt to the level of glory he knew from the 1970s.

After Wanny was pushed out, Pitt went on to beat Kentucky in something called the "BBVA Compass Bowl" and hired Todd Graham from Tulsa. Graham threw together a last minute recruiting class, salvaging the future and raising my expectations for the team this year. I renewed my season tickets. I look forward to our first game. Graham has a touch of George W. Bush to his diction. So, Coach Graham: “Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, I’ll get fooled again.” I’m a Pitt diehard and I can take it.

* * *

I’ll dispense with a lengthy history of Pitt basketball (both because I don’t know much about it and because it’s not really as glorious as the football history.) I do know my dad has had Pitt basketball season tickets as long as I’ve been alive and I can comment on how that has gone for us so far.

So jumping right in, 1988 was a special year for Pitt basketball. This was a heck of a team that coaches Roy Chipman and then Paul Evans put together. They had:

  • Charles Smith, one of the top players in the country (and future employer of a current writer!)
  • Jerome Lane, also a future NBA player who had led the nation in rebounding at roughly 6’4”.
  • An incoming class of five freshmen that ranked as the top in the country: point guard Sean Miller (currently coach of Arizona), shooting guard Jason Matthews (three-point specialist), swingman Darelle Porter (future coach of Duquense basketball and an excellent defender), and post-players Brian Shorter (who prop-48ed) and Bobby Martin.
  • A variety of other contributors, including the talented Demetreus Gore and a scorer later named academically ineligible in Rod Brookin.

Going into the NCAA tournament, the team was talented, deep, battle tested – and Coach Evans (fresh off successes with David Robinson at Navy) was well regarded as an up and comer.

Pitt finished the 87-88 season ranked #8 in the AP poll and advanced to the Sweet 16 round where they faced a Wil Perdue-led Vanderbilt squad (or “Wil Vanderbilt” as Michael Jordan mockingly called him.) This game shouldn’t have been a major problem. The Panthers had more talent, more muscle, and seemed destined to meet up with Danny Manning’s Kansas squad in the elite eight. Manning has since mentioned Charles Smith was the player he thought would be most challenging to match-up with in that tournament.

Pitt took a 67-63 lead with 12 seconds to go. A 4 point lead to defend in 12 seconds – no problem, right? Vanderbilt’s Barry Goheen rushed down the court to hit a three, to draw his team of future lawyers within one. After being quickly fouled, Charles Smith smoothly hit two more free throws, and Pitt now led 69-66 with only four seconds left.

Let me now stop to explain a rule that existed in the NCAA in 1988: at this time, if you fouled a player in the act of shooting, it did not matter if he was in front of or behind the three point line: it was only two shots. So the obvious thing to do is foul.

So what happened in reailty? Goheen again ran down the floor untouched and hit another three pointer to send the game to overtime. You can guess the rest: Vanderbilt pulled ahead of the emotionally crushed Panthers and won the game easily in OT.

Here is the video documentation of this absurdly frustrating ending:

Whose fault was it? It depends who you ask. From a 2008 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Afterward, Pitt coach Paul Evans said he had told his players to foul Goheen on the final drive of regulation, but many of the Pitt players disputed Evans' claim then and now.
"That's when I realized that we didn't have a coach," said Smith, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in his final game. "We should have never let [Goheen] shoot that 3-pointer. We should have fouled him."
If you’re interested in learning more about this team, check out A Season Inside: One Year in College Basketball by John Feinstein. Overall it’s a really good read about 1988 in college basketball in a few programs.

Coincidental side note: Moon, Pennsylvania native John Calipari was a Pitt assistant during this game and went on to have his own “why didn’t you foul?” moment in the Memphis – Kansas national title game a few years ago – though to be fair, the rules have since changed that fouling someone in the act of shooting a three is three shots now. But still, he was there on the bench for two of the roughest losses I’ve ever seen.

* * *
After this loss came “the dark years.” Paul Evans’ career took a nosedive to the extent that the last that I heard he was an assistant coach of a High School in Virginia. The new coach, Ralph Willard, had to deal with inferior facilities and hence tough times recruiting. I remember the team being so thin at talent that the team equipment manager, Oliver Antigua, played some limited minutes in a few games. Pitt lost a ton of basketball games during this time (and football for that matter.) When Ben Howland was hired, it generated little excitement among anyone I knew at first.

But Howland managed to raise our expectations almost over night. It was fun to watch a team rebuild so aggressively. Excellent perimeter defender Julius Page and hard working rebounders like Chevy Troutman, Jaron Brown and Ontario Lett set a new physical tone for Pitt hoops. But no player better defined the tough style of Howland’s teams than the gutsy Brandon Knight, now a rising star on the coaching staff.

So for March Madness in 2002, we got to see the best Pitt team in a good number of years advance to the Sweet 16, with only a 10-seed Kent State squad standing between the Panthers and the Elite Eight. I remember sitting in a bar in Johnstown Pennsylvania, watching the game on a TV with a coworker while we were supposed to be out working on the Bob Casey Jr. for Gubernatorial Primary against Ed Rendell. We sure knew how to pick a loser. Pitt lost to Kent State in overtime (“Five Dead In Ohio?”), and Casey lost to Rendell shortly after.

Pitt marched on. After this they had an understandable tournament loss against Dwayne Wade but still improved their profile. After Howland left for UCLA, the transition to Jamie Dixon saw no drop-off in most fan’s eyes: in fact, most would note the additional strides Pitt made under Dixon’s steady hand.

From 2002 on, Pitt hasn’t had a losing record against any other Big East team (thanks to the Pitt scouts message board community for this handy list):
Pitt vs. Big East opponents since the beginning of 2002, listed in order of winning percentage:

DePaul: 6-0 (1.000) Providence: 10-1 (.909)
Rutgers: 10-1 (.909)
Cincinnati: 8-1 (.889)
South Florida: 5-1 (.833)
Syracuse: 12-3 (.800)
St. John's 8-3 (.727)
West Virginia: 15-6 (.714)
Seton Hall: 9-4 (.692)
Georgetown: 10-5 (.667)
Villanova 9-5* (.643)
Marquette 6-4** (.600)
Connecticut: 9-7 (.563)
Louisville: 5-4 (.556)
Notre Dame: 7-7 (.500)

(Former Big East Members)
Boston College 6-0
Virginia Tech 3-0
Miami 2-1

Total conference record: 140-53
Home: 72-12
Away: 52-32
Big East Tournament record: 16-8
It started to almost feel routine to see Pitt put together an excellent Big East season, an excellent Big East tournament performance, and climb to higher and higher national ranking, including the first #1 basketball ranking in my lifetime. But for whatever reasons, Pitt couldn’t make it passed the Sweet 16 round.

In the 2009 NCAA tournament, Pitt finally looked ready to not only advance past the Sweet 16 (which they had gotten to five times in ten years/ten tournament appearances), but to make their first Final Four of my life! Then Scottie Reynolds happened:

Of course Jay Wright mentioned this play never worked in practice, but somehow it works against Pitt. This was an unbelievable blow, especially for a team filled with fan favorites like DeJuan Blair, the first Pittsburgh City League player on the Panthers since Porter in 1988.

Still, the 2010-2011 season was one of the three most hopeful in my life, along with the aforementioned 1987-1988 and 2008-2009. Pitt secured a #1 seed going into the tournament. In the second round, they faced the Butler Bulldogs. This was one of the strangest endings to a sporting event I’ve ever seen, and of course Pitt was on the losing end again.

But hey, Pitt has their second McDonalds All-American since that 1988 class coming in next year in Khem Birch. There is always reason for restored hope.

And I still keep a poster up in my office of that 1988 freshmen class (see below), the first sports team I ever loved. I won’t take it down until Pitt makes it to a Final Four. At that point, it’ll be time for a new poster.

Hail to Pitt!

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Campus Confessions: A Rare Cinematic Glimpse into 1930s Basketball

The 1930s was a fascinating decade for film. The early part was relatively uncensored, resulting in movies that were surprisingly raunchy (Baby Face, Hot Saturday) and/or politically challenging (I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Duck Soup). Once the Hays Code started being enforced in 1933, cinema lost some of its edge, but maintained the contemporary, Great Depression-era themes, especially that of class consciousness. With the majority of 1930s America falling into the category of rich or poor, the tension between the two classes was reflected in a number of films, even screwball comedies. A good example is 1936's My Man Godfrey, where William Powell plays a homeless man who is adopted by a rich WASP Manhattan family, agreeing to be their butler. My Man Godfrey is one of the best comedies of the 30's and the Criterion DVD is readily available to all [ed.'s note: as it is on YouTube, albeit with much lower picture and audio qualities], much like many other classics. But that still leaves thousands of movies, including some hidden gems, only available in various archives, or through public domain bootleggers.

The latter is where I found the movie Campus Confessions, a breezy comedy from 1938 set in fictional Middleton University. Middleton's athletic program has been struggling to say the least, due mostly to stuffy Dean Wayne Atterbury who prefers that the school be known for its academics. This leads eventual Basketball Hall of Fame member Hank Luisetti (playing himself as a famous college basketball star, albeit rather woodenly) to consider transferring to State U so he can finally play for a winner. Big State and Tech U were apparently too busy courting Jesus Shuttlesworth to recruit ol' Hank.

Campus Confessions is not a classic comedy by any stretch, but it is notable as the first talkie to be primarily about basketball. From the opening credits that overlay the stars names' on top of a spinning basketball, to extended shirts and skins practice sessions, to footage of Middleton's rise to the top of their unnamed conference in Anytown, U.S.A., Campus Confessions was quite possibly the first exposure to basketball for a significant portion of its audience. In fact, the tag line to the movie is "A Peppy College Romance! A Real Basket Ball Game!"

It's such an exciting sport it can't be contained in one word!

Amidst the novel basketball plotline comes the familiar theme of class. The students at Middleton, while prosperous enough to afford a college education, also work blue-collar jobs during the summer. Their resentment for incoming freshman rich kid and Dean's son Wayne Atterbury Jr., played by b-movie veteran William Henry, is apparent from the beginning. In the closest thing resembling a plot twist, Atterbury Jr. turns out to be a proto-Rajon Rondo, a terrific passer who can't shoot for shit. But that's okay, because all the team needed was a facilitator for Hank to become a contender. I don't want to spoil the ending, but let's just say circumstances force Luisetti to sit out the first half of the Big Game. In improbable fashion, he checks in during the second half and goes Sleepy Floyd on those State U herbs. As for Atterbury Jr., he finally wins the respect of his less prosperous teammates by punching the most resentful one square in the jaw. Class conflict averted! His transition from stuck up rich kid to star point guard is symbolized by the shaving off of a ridiculous mustache he had originally sported. This also helps him hook up with the striking Joyce Gilmore, played by a young Betty Grable.

While many elements of the film are very much of their time (a newspaper headline unironically states that Middleton "scalped the Indians 60-40"), there are some surprisingly modern touches. In what may be the first example of sexting-talk on film, Joyce refers to Hank as a "P.C.", which she explains is short for Prince Charming. The town's German tailor is referred to as "Lady MacBeth" because he "always sees spots," and he accepts the nickname proudly with no concern for emasculation that might be typical of the less enlightened 30's male. And finally, an element of liberated fandom is introduced when the Dean is challenged to pick a team to root for in the big Middleton/State U game and responds "Do I have to be for somebody?"

But the highlight of the movie is Hank Luisetti. His acting is terrible by even athlete standards, but his play on the court gives a rare glimpse of basketball stardom when it was still only played in colleges and barnstorming leagues. He dribbles between his legs, throws behind the back passes, and takes a rather ugly one-handed runner, which was still revolutionary in the age of the two-handed set shot. Basketball's early history is sparsely preserved, so a movie like Campus Confessions is valuable as a document of one of its early stars and great influencers, and a pioneer of awful athlete acting cameos that we would suffer through for years to come.

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Mark Jackson, the Jackson Pollock Point Guard

Why do I think that Mark Jackson is one of the most interesting basketball figures of my life time, despite the fact I've never really been a big fan of any team he played on? Let me count the reasons!

1. Mark Jackson may be the only player with only a single All-Star appearance to get such a sweet K-YouTube mix:

2. Jackson looks completely out of place on the list of the NBA's all-time assists leaders. It's a pretty useful list to memorize for a competitive advantage in NBA trivia contests with less statistically inclined fans:
  1. John Stockton 15806
  2. Jason Kidd 11578
  3. Mark Jackson 10334
  4. Magic Johnson 10141
  5. Oscar Robertson 9887
  6. Steve Nash 9252
  7. Isiah Thomas 9061
(The second FreeDarko book reports an even more obscure Mark Jackson stat: Jackson is the all time NBA leader in rebounds-per-game at his height, 6'3".)

But seriously, think about it: Mark Jackson is one of only four players ever to have more than 10,000 assists.

3. When I was growing up, I played a lot of church league basketball with Pittsburgh Pirates (first place!) pitcher Bob Walk's son. First let me say, Bob Walk was one of the nicest dudes I ever met.

Anyway, the younger Walk and his best friend were obsessed with the Indiana Pacers to the extent that they would pretend (even in real games!) to be Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller. This was pretty easy for them to do actually. Mark Jackson had such an awesome free throw routine and consistent style of hair and dress that it made him easy to copy no matter how many times he was traded or became a free agent (nine times for those who are wondering.) The Reggie Miller kid focused obsessively on shooting threes with his knees apart and with his socks pulled high. One time they asked me to become their Rik Smits, but it sounded too dorky, so I passed. Still, we won a lot of games with those copycats as our back court.

4. Jackson was so New York. Once, Jackson said during a live broadcast his favorite movie growing up was The Taking of Pelham 123! [Ed. note: not the remake, either!] Born in Brooklyn, Jackson played for St. John's University when the program likely mattered the most nationwide, performing as the quintessential clever Big East point guard, and once graduating, he played for two distinct Knicks teams with a ten year break in service. And speaking of which, how sweet was Big East basketball in the 1980s?

5. By the standards of contemporary NBA players, Jackson was out of shape. One might even consider his physique "flubby." At least once Jackson was benched for fitness issues. He didn't exactly look like you expect a guard to look like, but was such a creative player he'd always earn more playing time. I've always sort of rooted for guys who don't look like an Adonis.

6. He perfected the teardrop/floater that other players have widely copied since. It has become a much more widely used shot in the era of cramped lanes and "long" defenders. I'm sure it had been around in many forms over the years, but Mark Jackson is the guy that comes to mind as hitting the tear drop growing up.

7. He had a rule informally named after him (the five second back-to-the-basket rule.) I remember entire possessions that consisted solely of Mark Jackson backing down a defender before taking a nearly point blank baby hook. For a while, I thought of it as the "Charles Barkley" rule, but "charles barkley rule" on Google only brings up 1,510 results compared to 3,790 for "mark jackson rule."

(Google side note: "Stephon Marbury cancer" brings up 478,00 results compared to 394,000 results for "Leiomyosarcoma cancer", which is an actual medical form of the disease. I know cancer is not a laughing matter except maybe when survivors want to use it as such, but Stephon Marbury's endlessly amusing career is. It also seems like no enterprising company has yet bid on the "Stephon Marbury cancer" keyphrase in AdWords.)

8. Over the course of his announcing career, Jeff Van Gundy and Jackson have become the announcer embodiment of a black cop/white cop buddy movie, to my frequent amusement. I can only hope his coaching career will be equally entertaining for me (in at least some sense).

Put it all together: Mark Jackson was a comparatively small and non-athletic man, largely informed by a street game, who managed to use a few moves over and over again to put up much better numbers than he 'should' have. The combination of the back down, the baby hook, the no-look passes, the teardrop, and the push shot made him one of the most frustrating point guards of his era, even if he never had the ability to be a true star.

Basically he played basketball the way some people play video games: exploiting a weakness in your opponent and doing it over and over again. Video game people call it "cheesing," amongst other things. In real pro basketball, I consider it "smart."

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Taking Your Talents to South Beach: What LeBron Can Learn From Muhammad Ali

One year ago this week LeBron James told the world on national television that he would be taking his talents to South Beach. “The Decision,” as it was called, would kick off a year that would see LeBron transformed from one of the most sought-after and beloved players in the NBA into a tragic and troubled figure. Booed wherever he played, heckled and jeered at in public, lampooned and lambasted by the press, LeBron was eventually disgraced in defeat in an NBA finals where it seemed fans the world over were rooting against him rather than for the Dallas Mavericks. Even Muhammad Ali himself appears to have been cheering for the Mavericks - after the Mavericks won he gave Dirk Nowitzki a pair of his boxing gloves with the message "You are the greatest."

Perhaps Ali would have sent LeBron the same gift if the Heat had prevailed. Certainly the "Greatest Of All Time" could find it in his heart to sympathize with LeBron's situation.  Ali himself had once packed up and moved to Miami in search of stardom and success. There in South Beach Ali would be confronted with many of the same issues that LeBron has faced over the last year.  Criticized for his confidence and his lack of a killer instinct to back it up, Ali, too saw his fans turn on him and root for his opponents. Even in victory Ali, like James, found a public who was more interested in judging him as a person than as a boxer. What could LeBron James learn from Muhammad Ali's early years in Miami?
“In this fall, this is very tough, in this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
Shortly after returning from winning the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, Cassius Clay signed a professional contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a group of about a dozen local business leaders and attorneys. The group took responsibility for Clay’s career, believing that he would be a contender for the heavyweight championship within four years. While the group did have some civic pride around Clay being from Louisville, their primary motivation was money. They stood to collect half of all of his professional earnings. In order to get the biggest return on their investment, the group wanted Clay to win the title. And they knew that the man who could make that a reality didn’t live in Kentucky, he lived in Miami.

In 1960 the Fifth Street Gym in South Miami Beach wasn’t as storied as some of its counterparts in Detroit or upstate New York. It was a new gym with only one titleholder, Carmen Basilio, under their tutelage. But Dundee had a reputation among the boxing elite as a guy who could work with young, skilled, pure boxers, and when the Sponsoring Group asked around for recommendations, Dundee’s name came up. It helped that, because Dundee and his brother were just starting up their own gym, they were willing to work cheap.

Clay moved to Miami in the winter of 1960, renting a very modest bungalow in Miami’s black district. His early professional fights weren’t particularly exciting, but people were excited about him as a boxer. Much like LeBron James’ high school games, Clay was the first ever fighter to have his fights nationally televised right out of the amateurs.

Angelo Dundee taught Clay how to use the media to his advantage to promote a fight. Dundee’s advice, coupled with Clay’s passion for professional wrestling (particularly the villain Gorgeous George), created a motor-mouthed self-promotion machine the world of professional sports had likely never seen before. It helped that he was good-looking, charming, non-threatening and polite. Most importantly it helped that in those early days he was always considered an underdog.

Boxing writers were critical of Clay’s skills, even in victory. A.J. Liebeling accused him of keeping his hands too low during the Olympics, of running around the ring from his opponents. Dundee felt the criticism was unfair. “In the beginning, a lot of people criticized Ali for not being able to take a punch,” Dundee once said. “That’s why he danced around the ring they thought. Those guys didn’t know what they were talking about. Ask any fighter and he’ll tell you, you don’t get hit because its fun. You get hit because sometimes you can’t avoid it. And if you can avoid it, more power to you.”

Dundee publicly bristled at the criticism his fighter received, but he was far from convinced that he had the next heavyweight champion in Cassius Clay. As Clay continued to rack up wins, Dundee’s confidence grew. “Each fight proved a little something to me, and I started to realize the talent I had in my hands.” As Dundee’s confidence grew, Clay’s was growing tenfold. Clay soon made a habit of predicting what round he would knock his opponents out in, usually offering his predictions in poems he would write.
"Not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7. Hey, and when I say that, I really believe it. I'm not just up here blowing smoke at none of these fans, because that's not what I'm about. I'm about business. And we believe we can win multiple championships."
Eventually Clay was channeling Gorgeous George both before and during his bouts. When Clay famously fought Henry Cooper in London in 1963, he came to the ring wearing a red robe that read “Cassius the Greatest” on the back and a crown on top of his head. By the fourth round of the fight, Clay was clearly in control. Cooper was already bleeding and seemed headed for a knockout. But Clay would step back after connecting a punch and taunt Cooper or shuffle his feet and do a little dance. His behavior was enough to irritate even his own backers. According to Thomas Hauser, at one point Bill Haversham, member of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, came ringside to exhort “Angelo, make him stop the funny business.”

The funny business continued, as did his keeping his hands low, and eventually Cooper caught Clay with a hook that dropped him to the floor. At the end of the round, as boxing lore has it, Dundee was forced to both use smelling salts to revive Cassius Clay (which was illegal) as well as secretly cut open his gloves to get the referee to delay the start of the fifth round (according to Dundee, the gloves were already cut, he merely "helped them along a little"). Ali bought enough time to recover his wits and was able to end the fight in the fifth round by opening up the cut over Cooper’s eye - a narrow escape, and a humbling performance. Clay, for his part, was less than humbled, at least publically. His statement after the controversial fight: “I am not the greatest. I am the double greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today.”
“It is very humbling for myself, to continue to showcase my talent, and the fans to respect that is humbling. It is an opportunity for them (the fans) to have their wish list come true.” 
Cassius Clay and Angelo Dundee had set their sites on a title shot against Sonny Liston, but first they had to beat Doug Jones in New York City. Prior to the Jones fight Clay took to his usual routine of boasting, bragging, and predicting the round he would win in. During the weigh-in Clay asked Jones how tall he was. “Why do you want to know” asked Jones. “So I’ll know how far to step back when I drop you in the fourth” Clay responded.

It wouldn’t be so easy for Clay. Jones nearly knocked Clay down in the first round with a huge left that sent Clay back against the ropes. The fight went the distance, was largely a boring affair, and after the judges announced a unanimous decision for Clay, the New York crowd booed, jeered, and threw peanuts and bottles into the ring. Clay defiantly walked to the middle of the ring, picked up a peanut, cracked it open and ate it, grinning at the crowd. Clay had won the fight, but even his own fans had turned on him as if he had lost. He fell far short of his own boasting, and many were growing tired of it. The famous boxing writer Peter Hamill wrote at the time“Cassius Clay is a young man with a lot of charm who is in danger of becoming a dreadful bore.”
“I like boos, I don’t have a problem with the boos. I’ve grown accustomed to it. I enjoy it.”
Clay’s title shot against Sonny Liston was set for February of 1964 in Miami. At the time Sonny Liston was considered unbeatable. He had just knocked down Floyd Patterson three times before knocking him out in the first round. He was also as reviled in the black community as he was among whites. White fans called him a “gorilla,” considered him unintelligent, a physical freak. The black community were embarrassed by both his association with the mafia (he was managed by a group of mobsters) and his refusal to support the civil rights movement. The NAACP even asked Floyd Patterson not to fight him, believing that losing the title to Liston would be detrimental to the public perception of the black community and to the cause of civil rights. Liston took the criticism in stride. “A prizefight is like a cowboy movie. There has to be a good guy and a bad guy. People pays their money to see me lose. Only in my cowboy movie, the bad guy always wins.”

Incredibly, Cassius Clay fared little better in the public’s eyes. At this point in Clay’s career his popularity was at its lowest point. Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the Clay-Liston bout would be “the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin – 180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.”
"Don't think for one min that I haven't been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer. And I mean everyone!"
Clay was a 7-1 underdog for the fight. Nobody was picking him to win. His own backers even worried that the fight was a mismatch. Gordon Davidson, one of the Louisville Sponsoring Group’s lawyers, was quoted as saying “We did not want this fight so soon, but Cassius insisted and we had to give in…We finally concluded Cassius doesn’t try to learn anything from one fight to the next and really doesn’t care about becoming one of the finest heavyweights who ever lived. All he wants is to be the richest.”

"All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that." .
Meanwhile as preparations for the Liston bout continued, rumors swirled around Miami that Malcolm X had come to town and was there to recruit Cassius Clay into the notorious Nation of Islam. This didn’t help Clay’s already damaged public image.

The details of the fight are well known. Clay shocked the world, hurt Liston enough to force him to refuse to leave his corner at the start of the round, and then stood on the ropes and proclaimed himself “king of the world.” Two days after the upset, Cassius Clay called a press conference in Miami and made an announcement that would once again shock the world: Cassius Clay was now Cassius X, a member of the Nation of Islam and a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad. Soon after that Elijah Muhammad would bestow upon Cassius X the name Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s conversion to Islam and his role in the controversial Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod across the country. At the time the Nation of Islam was seen by most of white America as a hateful and violent organization. Ali’s role in the Nation of Islam did much more for legitimizing them than it did for making him more marketable. Columbia Records, who had recently offered Ali a contract to record his boastful poems, now were pulling the LPs off of record store shelves. Most sportswriters refused to call him by his new name and openly mocked his new religion. Jimmy Cannon at the New York Post said that Ali was “a more pernicious hate symbol than Schmelling and Nazism.” Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, remarked that Ali was now “an honorary member of the White Citizen’s Councils.” Floyd Patterson said he would fight Ali just to get the title away from the “Black Muslims.” Even his own family spoke out against his decision to join the Nation of Islam. His father insisted that Ali was a Baptist. His mother blamed the bright lights and big city of Miami. “The big mistake was when they sent him to train in Miami all by himself. That’s when the Muslims got him.”
"We didn't actually like Cleveland. We hated Cleveland growing up. There's a lot of people in Cleveland we still hate to this day."
Muhammad Ali was no silent follower, either. He was an outspoken advocate for even some of the Nation of Islam’s most controversial subjects. And when his former friend and confidant, Malcolm X, was exiled from the Nation of Islam, Ali also turned his back on him. He was quoted before Malcolm X’s assassination as saying “they think everyone out to kill them because they know they deserve to be killed for what they did.”

LeBron James is the same age now that Muhammad Ali was when a jury found him guilty of resisting the draft. That year was the lowest of low points in Ali’s career. He was stripped of his titles and his licenses to box. It would be another seven years before Muhammad Ali would regain the title in Zaire against George Foreman. During those seven years, Ali would grow spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. He left the Nation of Islam, became a Sunni Muslim, apologized for his treatment of Malcolm X, reconciled with fighters he had humiliated (he even called Henry Cooper to compliment him on his left hook), became a philanthropist, and sought out a role as an international advocate of peace. He grew to become one of the most respected and beloved public figures in the world.
”I am who I am, and I think I'm in a position of my life where I'm going to get better every day, but it's too much. That's just crazy. What those guys did, the courage and what they stood for, I should be nowhere near that list. Nowhere near it.''
Most importantly, history has remembered Muhammad Ali not as a 22 year old obnoxious braggart, or as a  firebrand hate-monger, or even as a lazy boxer or an impatient and stubborn student. History has remembered him as a poor kid from Louisville who shocked the world as a seven-to-one underdog, as a brave young man who stood up for what he believed in against the worst possible consequences, and as an amazing fighter who could twice shock the world in an unwinnable fight by showing a whole lot of heart and serious God-given talent. History remembers the moments where Muhammad Ali made the right decisions, the decisions we all aspire to have the guts and the intelligence and the resolve to make. History has forgotten the moments where he did otherwise.

There’s no telling how history will remember LeBron James. The only thing we know for certain is that, at least on this point, LeBron controls his own destiny. Muhammad Ali’s story teaches us that redemption is possible, but it requires of us to both seek forgiveness and to act with thoughtfulness, courage, and kindness when the truly important “decisions” that test our character arise. One other thing, it helps a lot if you win.

David Hill is a writer living in Brooklyn. He spent his honeymoon in Miami, but claims it was his wife's idea. You can follow him on twitter at @davehill77

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Pistol Pete Night on NBA TV: A Live-to-Tape Blog

With the NBA's lockout upon us, the league has made sure to scrub its websites of any current player images. The same goes for the NBA TV network, where in the past few days they have filled up time by airing a loop of dunk contests from 1988 to 1994. As the NBA digs further and further into their archives to avoid any chance that a young Jason Kidd or Kurt Thomas might grace the screen, it's a great chance for them to show games from the 60s and 70s, an era that seems to be documented moreso in print than on video.

Take Pete Maravich, who's legend has lived on through highlight films and anecdotal tales, but who among us have watched a full game he played in? I had not, which is why I was psyched to see NBA TV airing a Pistol Pete doubleheader on July 4th: a game from 1978 when he was on New Orleans, and a game from 1970 during his rookie year with the Atlanta Hawks. I decided this was such a special occasion that I might as well write up a running diary of the events. So without further ado:

Bob Costas is broadcasting live from the Superdome with an as of yet unknown partner. Amazingly, he looked and sounded exactly the same 33 years ago.
8:03 "Truck" Robinson with the first 4 points for New Orleans. The nickname game is strong in 1978.
8:06 Pistol misses a point blank lay up. This guy leads the league in scoring?
8:08 Lots of empty seats at the Superdome, yet no talk of depth perception issues. Take that, Butler Bulldogs.
8:10 Pistol throws a behind the back pass on a fastbreak. Not sure it was necessary, but it sure was fun.
8:16 No one has dunked yet.
8:17 2 failed Celtics coaches on the floor right now: Chris Ford and M.L. Carr
8:18 Costas just informed us that the Knicks are leading Denver 23-22. Go Knicks! Earl the Pearl!
8:20 Bob Lanier dominating for Detroit inside. Nice footwork, soft touch. Shades of Hakeem.
8:21 Eric Money is taking three free throws to make two. I think he missed one on purpose for laffs. Glad that rule was changed!
8:24 Aaron "The Original King" James is keeping the Jazz in it.
8:25 Costas informs us Denver now leads the Knicks by one. Typical Knicks! Step it up, Lonnie Shelton!
8:26 Gail Goodrich hits a 35 footer at the buzzer. Somehow, it's only worth two points.
8:31 Another missed layup by Pistol. So far, not his best game. Maybe NBA TV wanted to showcase Eric Money instead?
8:34 Nope, Eric Money just missed a layup too. The dunk was legal by 1978, right?
8:37 Costas just mentioned that Stu Lance is doing color. I thought it was Steve "Snapper" Jones this whole time.
8:38 Chris Ford with a Maravichian behind the back pass to a tall (and striking) blonde dude for an easy two.
8:39 Finally, a dunk! Pistol to Truck. If you could dunk back then, you were given a hyper-masculine nickname.
8:40 Kinda nervous about this Knicks/Denver game. Can I get an update, Bob? The internet doesn't exist yet, bro.
8:41 Ugh, he just gave me the Sixers/GSW score instead. It must've sucked being an out of market NBA fan in 1978.
8:44 Bob Lanier still killing it. First time watching him and I'm really impressed.
8:46 30 seconds left and they finally show the clock. I had enjoyed watching the game in a timeless vacuum.

Halftime. Detroit 58, NOJ 53, I'm anticipating a big 2nd half from Pistol, 'cause otherwise NBA TV put on the wrong game.

8:51 Maravich starting the 2nd half strong with a jumper off the dribble. Costas points out that not too many can do that as well as Pistol.
8:53 Some guy on the Jazz named Kelley just dunked, I'm nicknaming him THE VAN.
8:54 Pistol just completely fucked up a three-on-one by getting too fancy but the Jazz score anyway and have now taken the lead.
8:59 Eric Money hits three in a row for Detroit. He has 17 points, and all of them were equally money.
9:01 The Knicks are now up two on Denver. This is apparently the closest game in NBA history.
9:03 I wonder how many people sitting in the front row are still alive. A good 70%?
9:04 Slick Watts, who has a shaved head, puts his headband on and Costas just quipped that its to "keep the skin out of his eyes". C+
9:06 These teams have already combined for 36 turnovers and its still only the 3rd quarter. Cocaine's a hell of a drug.
9:07 Pistol's got 20, but he's still no Eric Money.
9:11 Costas just said "money" 8 times in one sentence.

End of the 3rd quarter. Detroit is up 3. No word on Denver/NYK.

9:21 Maravich misses a lefty lay up, but man, was it pretty.
9:27 NBA TV is calling this "Old School Monday." I'm psyched for "We Have Nothing Else To Show Wednesday."
9:31 Pistol puts the Jazz up by three. Stu Lance points out that while most players take it to the basket on fast breaks, Pete will pull up from anywhere.
9:34 Pistol taking over. I think the crowd is into it but I can only see the front row. The guy in the pink shirt is into it.
9:40 Costas relays a story about how Pistol told the Jazz to trade the GM instead after hearing he was on the block. On an unrelated note, he only played two more years in the NBA after this.
9:47 With 30 seconds left, the Pistons are down three. The three point line still does not exist but the Money man cuts it to one.
9:50 Money cuts it to one again after Goodrich makes 2 free throws, but the Jazz throw it full court and the Truck dunks it as time expires. Jazz win!
9:54 Wait, who won the Knicks/Denver game? Where are you, Bob Costas?!?
9:57 NBA TV is showing MJ highlights as filler in between games. I'm guessing this will be a regular occurrence during the lockout. I could watch these all day.

The second half of this marquee "Pistol Pete doubleheader!" features a game from his rookie year in Atlanta, during the 1970 season. Their opponent was Connie Hawkins, and the Phoenix Suns.

10:00 Keith Jackson is doing the game. The Hawks jerseys are hurting my retinas. I may not last much longer.
10:02 Pete gets the 1st two on an uncontested layup. Could he dunk? I guess he would've been the BAZOOKA then.
10:04 Very pretty no-look from Pete. He already looks more free-wheelin' than in the previous game where he was comparatively old and bitter.
10:06 The Hawks have a guy named Lou Hudson who is averaging 28 ppg. I have never heard of him. I'm guessing that is because he was on the Hawks.
10:09 Pete with an underhanded outlet pass. This is so fun. Shades of 1999 Jason Williams. (Can someone from the past be "shades of" someone in the future?)
10:10 I'm too enamored with rookie Pistol to say anything worthwhile so I'll end it here before it becomes The Chris Farley Show with guest Pete Maravich.

Lets just say Pistol Pete's first few 7"s were the best.

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The Star-Spangled Banner

Today is America's Independence Day. Since African American players have made up the majority of the league for several decades, it may not be a surprise that the NBA has a complicated history with the national anthem (and with all due respect to Raptors fans, I'm not referring to "O Canada").

The relationship of African Americans to American patriotism can be a complex one overdetermined by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, disproportionate rates of military service, a frequent love of home and geographic place, economic class, an alternatively conservative and liberating culture vis a vis Protestantism, and many other factors -- and in the athletic realm -- the Olympics as a showcase for the most successful black athletes in the world under the Stars and Stripes. You may see the same family fly a flag in their yard and have great respect for servicemen and women, but be very critical of their country's shortcomings on race.

So during that two minutes players stand before their games, the NBA has reflected these contradictions. We've even seen some players sing the anthem themselves and others refuse to stand for it. Josh Howard's comments about the enforced patriotism of the national anthem were likely that of many players, though he was the one "caught" saying them thanks to an era of cell phone videos and the internet.

But as I watched (for the 1000th time) the video of Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem at the 1983 All-Star game I realized much of this isn't quite a "contradiction." Perhaps many players have discovered their own resolutions to the antagonism between enforced patriotism and a long history of discrimination.

In the case of Marvin, his own soulful rendition implied that this is not only an American (and therefore, by historical ideology, white) national anthem anymore, but a specifically Black American rendition, embracing a legacy of change.

Marvin was not have been the first to interpret the anthem his own: Jose Feliciano faced incredible backlash for his 1968 version. Jimi Hendrix added his own interpretation a year later at Woodstock. And Marvin had his own evolution with the anthem at public events himself.

And like most great moments of original artistic expression brought to the people, the logic of postmodernism recycled it. The 2004 NBA All-Star Game featured Nona Gaye singing along with a video of her late father and the inevitable Nike ad featuring the work of someone who couldn't decide for himself if his voice should be part of their commercial or not.

But the greatness of Marvin's arrangement remains. And it happened at the All-Star game of the sport most associated with Black American culture, which has long been incredibly flexible and adaptive and able to turn what was once oppressive into something liberating. His performance could be made into a dozen commercials and it wouldn't take away anything from an original performance that inspires this listener to thoughts of the complexity of patriotism and culture -- and the beauty in a struggle and a song.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. - John Keats
So happy 4th of July, Negative Dunkalectics readers. Without further ado, Marvin Gaye:

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The Boys of Summer

Summer jumped on me, like a floppy-eared golden retriever elated upon its owner’s arrival home, licking blankly at a face, black eyes widely pitched towards its aim of affection. It was unexpected, but an inevitable fact of life. The warm lick of summer, at least here in Boston, has also been accompanied with the typical humidity, but also the strong scent of unliberated, bandwagon fanhood, as a couple of weeks ago, this oft-maligned city lived up to its century-old “Hub!” moniker by becoming the hub of remembering that pro hockey exists in metropolitan areas not beset by 1. brain drain, 2. Marcellus shale “fracking” issues, and 3. scrapple (other than Canadian cities, which remain gloriously cosmopolitan, as all foreign cities in the Western world are). I grew up playing hockey, and by that I mean skating around poorly with my brother, and until a few weeks ago I had no idea that Joe Thornton wasn’t on the Bruins anymore. I watched a lot of those games, but I am not even going to try to convince you I am even a casual fan.
A lot of people assuredly, quietly, felt the same way going into the NBA Finals a few weeks ago, with the same lack of awareness that allowed ordinary, well-meaning people to remark on noted former congressional shithead Anthony Weiner’s transgressions without noting his own previous life as a defender of the socially downtrodden. It’s all ignorance, and I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative way, just that it would be difficult to give much a shit about his proposal for single-payer health care before if you weren’t genuinely interested in progressive politics or health care reform, the same way nearly all normal people aren’t interested in Chris Paul’s PER during the playoffs. All things are the same in how they are parsed by profit-driven media organizations: as crappily as possible, even if they want to assure you of their continued quality/relevance by hiring Brian Phillips to write about Wimbledon.
For this year’s Finals and the consequent NBA Draft last week, it could not have gone worse in terms of typical narrative devises living up to those interests' expectations. As a fan, I can appreciate this because it has led me to feel unexpected emotions about prospectively banal subjects, but as a person who writes about basketball and culture as a hobby, it must have been horrible to be a hacky sports journalist recently (besides the lockout, which is thankfully going completely according to plan).
In all likelihood, the most unexpected emotion that I felt between the entirety of the Finals and the Draft came from a fleetingly short floor-angle camera shot of LeBron with about three minutes left in Game 6. Faced with his own certain defeat at the hands of these old dorks, James looked like his brain just became aware of his own purposelessness, hubris and callous misunderstanding of what just happened to lead him to this point. He looked positively bummed, which is why at least temporarily, I felt empathetic for those dudes. It is not every season that Simmons can refer, even half-seriously, to Shawn Marion as “the LeBron killer,” but we also live in a country where “fracking” the Marcellus shale of the Rust Belt is considered an acceptable way of producing natural gas. In that loss, they all had a right to feel miserable, just as we all should given our own personal circumstances (especially if we live in the Rust Belt).
With regards to the Big Three of last season’s Heat team, what has changed through the season the most is how their varying levels of typical gender performativity has claimed, more than anything, the way that the generally unaware “fan” perceives them as human beings. ESPN and whatever agencies usually come next (sports radio, outmoded newspaper reporters, etc.) have advocated and largely been complicit in illustrating these players through these shallow gender characterizations, which ultimately has affected the way that the aforementioned fans perceive them, simplifying and debasing their personalities to the point of harmfully reinforcing stereotypes about what masculinity is.
The rivetingly simple spectacle of watching these three very large grown men play with an orange rubber ball becomes even more unfortunately debased when hegemonic gender politics assert themselves as dominantly as they always do. We have associated professional sporting with the most stringent, abusive and aggressive forms of masculinity for so long that when an even slightly ideologically cumbersome player like Chris Bosh peers through the veil of stardom, the standing judgment has become to mock him mercilessly for expressing his emotions towards defeat and struggle like an actual human being.
And even if he struggles (as he often did in his new home) and our natural tendency for schadenfreude comes across as a result, why should we mock him with more venom than fellow Toronto Raptors expatriate Vince Carter, whose divorce from his team was much more disrespectful than Bosh, who we all assumed would leave? Why should we mock him in a different way than LeBron? It’s simple: his feeble humanity got the best of him, over and over, in a way that was unacceptable for our dominant tropes telling the story of the masculine gender.
A few months ago, David Hill wrote a fine article for this website where he analogized the upbringing and unconventional career of eventual second round NBA Draft pick Jeremy Tyler with a cultural namesake coming from a similar socioeconomic and educational background, buzz rapper Tyler the Creator. Where the latter Tyler has evoked his masculinity through vacant, uncouth references to sexual violence, one of his Odd Future cohorts, Frank Ocean (who sings the hook on Tyler’s song, “She”) is more apt for an unusual, delicate character examination that reflects a psychological break with his crewmates, and ultimately, nearly all contemporary hip-hop and R&B music.
Ocean is still tied to the overall boundaries of heteronormativity, in that (amongst things) he makes face-value references to vapid, meaningless sex and shitty relationships, but he is willing to contribute to his own complexities by willingly exposing himself as miserable, heartbroken, etc. in his lyrics in a way that points to knowledge of his own futility in early 21th century America. Although he explicitly talks about sex, he is additionally often interested in relating situations to his own compassion and empathy for those around him. Is this weird? I don’t know, but it reminds me of Chris Bosh. Either way, the most interesting point of Ocean’s spring-borne LP Nostalgia Ultra takes place in a very familiar point in hip-hop records.
As album midway point “Lovecrimes” slowly grinds to a halt, a sample of an early, heated exchange between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s derided Eyes Wide Shut gradually appears to the listener through a VCR somewhere. While Cruise calmly mumbles through a series of very awkward opinions about sexual desire, Nicole Kidman’s desires for parity ring louder and with more effectiveness than the cold-hearted technique that Ocean sang his own song. Which, I think, is the point.
First, there are Kidman’s bitingly sarcastic words, which the listener first understands towards the end of the track, as Ocean’s vocals gradually fade out: “Millions of years of evolution, right? Right? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women... women, it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else!” This conversation essentially sums up the differences between the two characters which causes their relationship to, at least temporarily, fracture; after Kidman’s character exposes any sort of individual agency through “selfish” sexual desire, Cruise’s character, rooted in traditional gender mores, becomes obsessed with realizing his own fantasy, with only a stinging regard for his partner.
Ocean is aware of this, and of how this story ends up, so this sample seemingly becomes the point in which the artist asks other members of his own gender, of his own listeners, “What are we defined by?”
Both Bosh and Frank Ocean are utilizing their own perspectives, based in their own individual social backgrounds, which encompass more than what contemporary gender mores expect from men, especially men who perform as R&B singers or professional athletes. The performance aspect of this is what is most important in our discussion. Is it Bosh's black and red uniform, representing not only himself but also such supreme examples of masculinity as James and Wade, which peeves some of our peers into mockery and comparison with stereotypical feminine positions? His formerly gaiety stature and height, upon which he stands with his red right ankles? That one time when he legendarily asked his fellow players to not play so hard so he doesn’t get hurt? Could it be his apparently bookish nature and quiet marriage? Was it Like a Bosh?
I don’t know. At least for this author, what Bosh’s apparent lapses into humanity indicate is a kind of levity that is lost quickly beyond Twittered pictures of Paul Pierce dressed up like a frog to match his daughter’s Halloween costume, or Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas planking through the streets of Orlando. But the difference in levity here involves the type of emotion provoked: as Pierce dressed up like a goofball for his daughter shows that he cares about making her happy, does the same emotional bluntness from Bosh (and many, many college basketball players of the past) not prove that he does care for what he does and is understanding of its significance in the world?
In order for ourselves to survive the next century with our senses intact, we are going to have to accept that empathy and compassion for other people can be a facet of masculinity. And believe it or not, this is going to have to apply to our professional athletes as well.
[Editor's note: As an addendum to this piece, here is a short list of specifically gender-related tweets from the fake Twitter account of legitimately great NBA commentator, Bill Walton, @TheBillWalton. Unsurprisingly, they all mock Chris Bosh. While with most NBA related fake (or real) accounts, I considered the account clever at first, as willing to attempt a Waltonesque tone on current NBA topics is pretty brave and literate. At first, they accomplished this goal, and then it went horribly wrong; finally, it ended up pretty much only posting things like this. So like I said, here's a short list of the many horrible things @TheBillWalton has said in Bill Walton's name.]
  • “... Chris Bosh's lipstick canister.”
  • “As for Chris Bosh's great shooting so far, maybe its Maybelline!”
  • “The evening gown portion of the Miss USA pageant! Chris Bosh is watching intently and taking meticulous notes on how enhance his wardrobe.”
  • “How many fashion tips did Chris Bosh pull from the Miss USA pageant?”
  • “Chris Bosh removes the lipstick and throws on the red, white, & blue tights and he grabs his golden lasso! Wonder Woman is back, folks!”
  • “The Vancouver riot squad has lost total control of this situation in the same vein that Chris Bosh lost control of his emotions & manhood.”
  • “This just in: Chris Bosh called the Canucks locker room & sang Rosey Grier's rendition of 'It's Alright To Cry' in a high pitched falsetto.”
  • “In this series Lebron lost his clutch & Chris Bosh found it. Unfortunately for Miami fans he filled it with perfume and mascara cases.”
  • “Secret. Strong enough for a man, but made for Chris Bosh.”
[I'm sure there's more, but what's the point? -ed.]
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Negative Draftalectics: Place Your Bets

I was sent to Vegas last week, all expenses paid by Negative Dunkalectics LLC, to research how more "legitimate" sportsbooks would be handling the upcoming draft. Unfortunately, when I got there, I saw no draft lines or props on the board! So I had no choice but to blow my expense account betting on the Jamaican soccer team and WNBA parlays.

Turns out Vegas won't post lines for outcomes that are based on a singular or collective decision as they are easy to manipulate (paying off a GM, etc.), but the ND Sportsbook has no such hang ups. On top of that, we now accept bitcoins, another thing Vegas is behind the curve on (Apparently you get weird looks when the guy at the Venetian asks for payment and you pull out a laptop).

Since we have the 2011 Draft betting market cornered, here are some Props and Exotics for your perusal:

While most of the lottery picks will be invited to the green room, there are always a few less prestigious prospects who invite themselves to the party, sit in the stands, and high five the audience when they are finally drafted in the late 1st or 2nd round. Past examples include Greivis Vasquez and the great Gheorge Muresan. Who will be that pro-active party crasher this year?
  • Kenneth Faried: 4-1
  • Nikola Mirotic: 7-1
  • Kyle Singler: 10-1
  • Jeremy Tyler: 20-1
  • Xavi Rabaseda: 25-1

Colorado's Alec Burks beat the odds by being only the 2nd player ever named Alec drafted by an NBA team, the other being former Miami Heat center Alec Kessler. Kessler was drafted 12th in 1990. Will Burks top that and become the highest ever draft pick named Alec?

  • Yes -160
  • No +130
  • It'll be a tie +800

Which Morris will be picked first?
  • Marcus -700
  • Markieff +600
  • Darius +4000
  • Zachary +10000

2011 Draft Class Over/Unders (Payable in 2020 by Yuan):
  • All-star games: 0.5
  • D-league all-star games: 2.5
  • European League players: 7.5
  • And1 Mixtape League players: 9.5
  • Really good players in the local pick-up game: 14.5

Who will be booed loudest when arriving at the podium?
  • David Stern -400
  • Adam Silver +320
  • Random foreigner drafted by the Knicks +900
  • Unknown Russian with "connections" drafted by the Nets +2500

If Utah passes on Jimmer Fredette, what will be damaged most in the ensuing SLC riots?
  • Non-alcoholic beer bottles: 3-1
  • Joseph Smith's statue: 5-1
  • Boxes of special underwear: 8-1
  • Mitt Romney's campaign office: 15-1
  • The possibility that rioters will have their own planet when they die: 30-1

That's it for now. Stay tuned for a special lockout edition of the ND Sportsbook, including prop bets on what Gilbert Arenas will order on his next visit to Cheesecake Factory.

For exclusive commentary on basketball and culture, check out more Negative Dunkalectics, follow @negativedunks on Twitter, and become our fan on Facebook.

What Would Dean Say? WNBA edition

Phoenix Mercury at San Antonio Silver Stars, June 21st, 2011
My dad’s old coaching bible is Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense by Dean Smith. After watching a WNBA game between the Phoenix and San Antonio last night, I decided to try to channel some of his quotes to my observations of this game.

Some Minimal Background for non-WNBA Fans
The new look Silver Stars (with a potential rookie of the year and some veteran additions) came in 4-0 -- but against opponents with a combined record of 4-18. A balanced team (three players averaging at least 17 PPG and seven players with at least 7 PPG), they lead the league in scoring offense, with an impressive efficiency. Becky Hammon leads the league in assists. They get 27.3 PPG from their three rookies, but again, against weak competition. So are they contenders or pretenders?

The talented Mercury came into the game 1-3, but with the league's frequent leading scorer Diana Taurasi waiting for help to push them back towards the upper half of the league. They've been an enigmatic regular season team over the previous 4 seasons, but always a team that seems to crank it up in the playoffs.

Both teams come out of a stacked Western Conference. You could make a legitimate argument that five of the six teams from the West (Minnesota, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Seattle, and Phoenix) have the talent to compete for a title –and the Western conference started the season 7-2 against the Eastern.
And finally, the game is a rematch of the last two conference semi-finals, both won by the Mercury.

Here's a rundown of some emblematic basketball moments by quarter.

First Quarter: Pace
The fast break is not only exciting to the players and spectators, it is a good way to pick up the high-percentage shot. The fast break often leads to a one- or two-man advantage as the offense approaches the basket. However, even if the fast-breaking team comes down the court three-on-three, the good-percentage shot should be more readily accessible since the defense is not set and waiting. Furthermore, the fewer defensive players in the scoring area, the better the changes for scoring. For example, it is much easier to score in a two-on-two situation than it is in a five-on-five situation. If you have any doubts about this theory, try playing seven-against-seven in practice to see how long it takes for a team to score compared to a normal five-against-five scrimmage.The successful break, especially one resulting from an opponent’s error, can serve to upset an opponent. This may help the fast-breaking team game momentum at times.Although we may lose the ball more often by fast breaking, we feel that the high-percentage shots or fouls drawn through its use more than compensate for lost possessions. For the above reasons, along with the relief from the offensive board, we always have believed in the fast break, even when were not blessed with excellent talent. – Dean Smith
The Mercury scores a quick basket after the opening tip. Then Candice Dupree fills the lane on a fast break and finishes to grab a quick 4-0 lead for the Mercury. After Becky Hammon scores on a reverse lay-up with the Silver Stars shot clock winding down, the Mercury immediately score on a fast break since the Silver Stars guards are so deep (it may remind some NBA fans of how Nash and Barbosa used to take advantage of the fast break after made baskets in that other Robert Sarver owned team in Arizona.)

San Antonio now calls timeout. Suddenly it's a 7-2 game with a timeout burnt thanks to the beauty of the face break. Maybe this shouldn't be a shocker. Corey Gaines was a Paul Westhead protégé here and at Loyola Marymount (Westhead being the only coach with an NBA and WNBA title).

San Antonio then gets back on defense more effectively The pace slows a bit for the rest of the quarter and looks like a lot of recent NBA games: endless on ball screens, trapping on pick and rolls, "hockey assists" out of double teams, and post players who pop out on screens to take long jumpers and 3's. The WNBA has made a push to have almost identical rules to the NBA, so it probably shouldn't be a shocker that the game will visually mirror it.

Second Quarter: Runs and Streaks as Emotional Ups and Downs
The more years I spend in coaching, however, the more I realize that there is far more to the game than the Xs and Os described in this book. Mental attitude is so very important. Regardless of the offense or defense used, the players must have confidence in the system and be self-confident. In my opinion, the ability on the part of a coach to exude confidence to individual players and the team is more important than the particular offense or defense used. – Dean Smith
Now in the second quarter, the Mercury go on a 9-0 run, followed by another San Antonio time out. Stephen Jay Gould might have written about the general mathematical lack of "streaky shooters" but viewing a game we can still see emotional ups and downs and streaks in teams. The proliferation of “+/-” stats has helped define narratives with at least some level of evidence as well.

On a side note, Turasi still hasn't scored until the quarter is almost over (then immediately gets "T'd up" after making the shot for complaining about a lack of a foul call.) The Mercury have to be proud of their squad to take a nine point lead at the half without her scoring: Penny Taylor (who finishes with 30 points) and others more than pick up the slack.

Third Quarter: Great Individual Effort as Routine
We criticize the act rather than the person. Coaches must push players to a point beyond which the players would like to stop. We accept them individually, as they are, regardless of whether or not they respond to the discipline. However, if they are to be on the team, they have a responsibility to work hard for the overall good of the team. – Dean Smith
In the third quarter, one player who does continue the “unremarkable” but incredibly important work of fighting back here is 34 year old, 5’6” Becky Hammon. She calls her own number when others aren't clicking, but continues to be the distributor. I think it's especially impressive to watch one of the smallest players on the floor, formerly undrafted despite her great college career, fight to keep a regular season game close against what seems to be the entire direction of the game. Creativity and effort give hope to some of us in the way a great performance by the top athlete on the floor won't. This is a "blue collar" performance in a league where players make more blue collar (pink collar?) wages than the NBA, and often subsidize their income by playing an additional season in Europe.

Speaking of “routine” effort, Candice Dupree puts together another double-double night as an undersized 5.

Fourth Quarter: A Team Playing for Pride and Each Other Becomes a Team Playing to Win
My close friend, golfing companion, and a most competent psychiatrist, Dr. J. Earl Somers, of Chapel Hill, N.C., gave us this peer pressure idea back in 1966. Earl related it to some interesting case histories he had studied from the World War II era. It seems that during the war many soldiers were greatly tempted to leave their trenches when the firing began. However, most resisted the urge to leave, despite their fear and the great danger involved. It later was determined that their motivation for remaining under fire was their desire not to let their buddies, or even their lieutenant, down. Although most of the men felt they were fighting a just war, it was their loyalty to their peers and leader, not to a set of ideals, which motivated them to fight. – Dean Smith
About half way through the 4th quarter, the Mercury appears to be on their way to easily surpass 100 points (impressive in a 40 minute game.) The Mercury’s non-Turasi starters now all have at least fourteen points each, the sort of balanced scoring that was supposed to make the Silver Stars a dangerous team here.

But suddenly a nineteen point Mercury lead is reduced to only seven (How? See points #2 and #3) with a minute thirty left. Is a miracle possible here? Side note: an impressive thing is how many San Antonio fans remain in their stadium.

Hammon hits back-to-back 3’s to give herself 28 points (plus seven assists, four rebounds, and a steal.) That makes it a five point game with 20 seconds left.

The final score ends up being 105-98 Phoenix. San Antonio may have lost a game because they ran out of time, but their effort toward the end gave them almost as much legitimacy in this loaded Western Conference as a win. Their mistakes on guarding the transition or avoiding the aggressive trap on the pick and roll suddenly seem more correctable with a close lose instead of a 20 point blow out. Though I understand Marv Levy's old point about why as a World War II veteran he didn't believe in comparing sports to war, emotionally, one has to guess they felt like by hanging in there, they didn’t let their “buddies and lieutenant” down.

I consider staying up to watch a middle of the night game to check out the French national team, but decide that I had enough universal basketball lessons for the night. I also learned that though for basketball-aesthetics/run-and-gun reasons, I've been a casual Mercury fan, there is a lot to appreciate about the grit of the Silver Stars.

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