A Tale of Two L.A.’s

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of Chris Paul-to-Blake Griffin-for-the-alley-oop, it is the age of Kobe’s forced jumpers as his trust for his teammates all but crumbles, it is the epoch of Clipperdom, it is the epoch of the End of Lakerdom, it is the season Little Brother surpasses Big Brother, it is the season Big Brother becomes Old Brother, it is the spring of contentment, it is the winter of resentment, LA has its shining future before it, LA has no future before it, they are all going direct to something truly special, they are all going direct the other way – in short, this period was so far like the last 30 years, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, as the defining moment between small market and big.

Minutes after the dumbest work stoppage in sports history, (Seriously.  The owners locked the players out largely due to the small market owners wanting some sort of revenue sharing system – a problem that has precisely 0.00% to do with the players.), the LA Lakers, Houston Rockets, and the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets agreed to a deal that would send Chris Paul, a top 3 point guard in the NBA by any argument, to LA.  Pau Gasol, the most skilled big man in the league, would have landed in Houston, where the Rockets had been preparing themselves for three seasons for just this opportunity.  The Lakers would have been building for now and the future, which is rare.  Most importantly, perhaps, the Hornets would have received 3 starter-quality veterans (Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Lamar Odom), along with Goran Dragic, a decent guard who is surely a rotation guy for a good team, along with a first round draft pick.  Many experts projected the Hornets as the real winners of the trade, citing the fact that they lost a great player but got three quality players back instead of watching Paul leave after the season ends.  That’s more than the Lakers got for Shaquille O’Neal way back when.

But, after the second seemingly-drunken letter authored by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in as many offseasons, NBA commissioner/ de facto New Orleans Hornets owner David Stern nixed the deal.  Gilbert’s email ranted about how the lockout was supposed to stop the rich from getting richer, and how this had to be the moment that the league stops the all-stars from migrating to the “big markets.”  How could the Cavs ever hope to compete with the New Yorks and LA’s of the world?

Commissioner,

It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed.

This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets.

Over the next three seasons this deal would save the Lakers approximately $20 million in salaries and approximately $21 million in luxury taxes. That $21 million goes to non-taxpaying teams and to fund revenue sharing.

I cannot remember ever seeing a trade where a team got by far the best player in the trade and saved over $40 million in the process. And it doesn’t appear that they would give up any draft picks, which might allow to later make a trade for Dwight Howard. (They would also get a large trade exception that would help them improve their team and/or eventually trade for Howard.) When the Lakers got Pau Gasol (at the time considered an extremely lopsided trade) they took on tens of millions in additional salary and luxury tax and they gave up a number of prospects (one in Marc Gasol who may become a max-salary player).

I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen.

I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do.

When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?

Please advise…

Dan G.

Sort of like Jerry Maguire’s memo mission statement, only way more whiny.  What doesn’t get quite as much play in the media is Gilbert’s crying that the trade would bring the Lakers under the league’s luxury tax, a dollar for dollar fine for being over a certain salary number.  That tax gets divided among the owners under the salary cap.  Gilbert took something that normally sounds like good money management and turned around into something bad for the league.  Stern released a statement the next day citing the reason for canceling the deal.  “Basketball reasons,” he called it, as if to say “This is definitely, positively, not because Dan Gilbert cries himself to sleep every night while cradling a LeBron jersey.  No one believed Stern.

Next came the awkward time.  The players involved in the deal had to report to the teams they knew tried to trade them just the night before.  Most notably upset was Lamar Odom who was so distraught over almost being dealt that he asked to be traded anyway, a request which the Lakers obliged in a deal with the Dallas Mavericks.  Pau Gasol, another famously emotional player, reported to camp with that awkward “I just got the voice mail you left when you drunk dialed me last night.  Let’s just pretend it never happened.” look on his face.

Rumors surfaced that the three teams were tinkering with the deal in an attempt to gain the league’s approval, but that was quickly followed by the league nixing the deal a second time.  LA and Houston dropped out of trade discussions.  The deal was dead.

Days later, the NBA Hornets finally dealt Chris Paul to LA.  Only, it wasn’t the Lakers that got the Greatest Pure Point Guard of All Time according to Bill Simmons, but the Clippers.  The league negotiated the trade, bypassing the general manager they had put in place and given full autonomy to.  That statement can’t be read with more weight.  The League negotiated a trade with another team.  I’ll take “Conflicts of Interest” for a thousand, Alex.  Just like that, Chris Paul teamed with Blake Griffin to form one of the most exciting point guard/power forward combos since ever.  Just like that, the LA Clippers were the talk of the NBA for the first time in its existence.  Just like that, the LA Clippers are as hot if not a hotter ticket than their Staples Center roommates.

Just like that, David Stern closed the window on this current incarnation of the Lakers.

Oh, the Lakers will have their shot to win another title before all is said and done, but their margin for error is so slim that the wrong matchup in the playoffs will spell disaster for them.  Kobe has no lift in his step anymore.  Pau Gasol is not Shaq in his prime.  There are no easy baskets on this team, and easy baskets is how you preserve your stars for when the going gets tough.  Dirk’s Mavs, Durant’s Thunder, and yes, even Paul’s Clippers should have an easier time scoring than their Laker brethren.

The average person hears of the Lakers’ misfortune and asks “so what?” After all, shouldn’t the rest of the league have a chance at the sustained greatness that only the Lakers have embodied for most of the past 30 years.  Consider this.  Since Magic Johnson’s Lakers ruled the NBA, the Lakers have signed exactly one mega star free agent, Shaquille O’Neal.  Everyone else was drafted by or traded to the Laker franchise.  The Lakers are not the Yankees, stealing talent from less fortunate teams by paying the players more money.  They are simply one of the best-run organizations in the NBA, and have been so since the modern age of the NBA began (1979 – present).

And that’s what schmucks like Gilbert don’t seem to understand.  This isn’t about market size, this is about how well a team manages itself.  Yes, LeBron bolted from Cleveland for Miami.  But he also chose the nation’s 8th largest market, passing on offers from the 1st (New York and New Jersey), 2nd (LA. The Clippers met with LeBron.), 3rd (Chicago), 4th (Dallas), and 6th (Houston) largest markets in the process.  Some of those big market teams were good, and some were bad.  In the end, all that really mattered was the Heat foreseeing LeBron’s desire to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  They managed their cap situation to get themselves in position to make the only offer LeBron wanted.  Market size did not matter.

Gilbert was upset that Lakers were primed to trade for Chris Paul and still have enough in the war chest to trade for Dwight Howard.  Read that sentence again, carefully.  The Lakers weren’t going to sign these guys away from their teams, they were going to trade for them.  All that requires is the assets to get the deal done, something the Lakers have that the Cavs don’t.  The Hornets had agreed to the trade, which means their front office was satisfied with what it was receiving in return for Chris Paul.  LA managed itself into position to acquire a young star to bring the franchise into the next decade, and Dan Gilbert was crying to mommy that he never had a fair shot at being successful even though he had LeBron James on his team for 7 years.

And so a new chapter in LA basketball history is being written.  It tells the tale of the all-too fragile Lakers who will have to defy every obstacle to win again in the face of Father Time, as well as the upstart Clippers, a team stockpiled with young, athletic, eager bodies ready to run and jump their way into the annals of NBA history.  For the latter franchise, their legend -if there is to be one- can’t be written without parenthetical qualifications, paragraph-long footnotes, and an asterisk next to the name of the point guard who got them to the mountaintop.

Lebron James is Not the Best Player in the NBA

In what could only have been considered an attempt to keep the NBA relevant during the lockout, ESPN published a list of the league’s top 500 players.  While many of the players were either undervalued or overrated, none was a bigger mistake than the player selected number 1, LeBron James.

Indisputable facts first.  LeBron James is an incredibly talented player, perhaps the league’s most talented.  He has two MVP trophies.  He is a physical specimen whose muscular build you might only find in a comic book.  He is a walking triple-double who can and has on occasion played all five positions.  He has only missed the playoffs once in his 8-year, hall of fame-caliber career.  He has never won a championship.  He has exactly one memorable game winning shot, over an underdog team he ultimately lost to in the playoffs.

Truth be told, LeBron James isn’t even the best player on his team.  Sure, if we were discussing talent in a vacuum – Talent Theory, if you will – LeBron is virtually unmatched by anyone ever.  But greatness is more than theoretical talent, it’s applied talent.

Here’s what I mean.  Eddie Murphy has as much talent as anyone in Hollywood, and he’s had that talent since the he was 18.  Would you call Eddie Murphy a great actor?  The prosecution rests.

When LeBron took his talents to South Beach, he chose to skip past all the moments where he would build his legend and go straight to the moment where everyone expects a player to win titles.  Just because you saved the Princess by warping ahead to level 8 – 8 doesn’t mean you beat Super Mario Bros.  What good is an accomplishment if you didn’t work for it?  We don’t hate LeBron for leaving Cleveland, we hate LeBron for thinking that taking the easy way out is the same as hard work.

Of course, LeBron was well within his rights as a free agent to sign where he pleased, but choosing to team up with both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh eliminated him from “Best Player in the NBA” consideration, at least for his first season in Miami.  He could have been considered the best player in the league coming into this season, if it wasn’t for that pesky NBA Finals he had.

If you recall, the “LeBron James chokes in the fourth quarter” jokes were everywhere after the Mavericks showed the world that LeBron hates figuring out zone defenses even more than he hates playing defense.  LeBron let his team down, plain and simple.  At the start of that series, LeBron was undeniably the main reason the Heat had gotten to the Finals.  By the end, it was equally undeniable that Dwyane Wade was that team’s Alpha Dog.

When LeBron signed in Miami, everyone wondered how Wade would perform in the “Pippen Role” with LeBron playing the Jordan.  Wade had never really been the facilitator, and was used to having the offense built around him.  For a while, the Heat struggled because of this fact.  No one knew who to defer to.  The Heat started picking up steam when both players worked off each other, featuring one of the greatest fast breaks of all time, but experts knew the playoffs would eventually slow them down, and they’d have to answer the lingering question of whose team it is.  The Celtics and Bulls did everything right.  They cut off LeBron’s lanes to the basket, which forced LeBron to settle for ill-chosen jumpers. (For the record, there’s no way Jordan lets this happen to him.  Cut off his lane to the basket, and he finds ten other ways to get there.  But LeBron is no Michael.)  The problem was that LeBron was hitting his improbable jumpers.  LeBron shot 33% from the 3-point line during last year’s regular season.  He shot 43% against the Bulls.  The Celtics fared better, holding LeBron’s averages to below his regular season marks, but the Heat edged out a five game series victory, outscoring Boston by a total of 14 points.  Once LeBron got to Dallas, his shooting streak stopped.  Dallas invoked the same strategy against LeBron that the others did, but their ability to keep pace with the Heat offensively coupled with the mounting pressure the Heat was facing caused LeBron’s collapse.

LeBron James averaged 26.7 points per game in the regular season.  He never scored more than 24 in the Finals.

Game 4 was LeBron’s lowest moment.  In 46 minutes, he finished with nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and eight points.  Eight.  To compare, Scottie Pippen only scored in the single digits three times in his 6 Finals appearances.  Two of those performances were his last two alongside Michael Jordan, when his back was gone and his body had been beaten down by relentless Karl Malone charges to the basket.  One of those games, Pippen played only 22 minutes.  Michael never scored that low in a playoff game (Career low: 15 points), let alone the Finals (Career low: 22 points).  In that same Finals, Dwyane Wade averaged one point more than his regular season average, and outscored LeBron in 4 of the series’ 6 games.  On the game’s biggest stage, it was LeBron who reverted into the supplementary role.  Dwyane Wade would play the part of Alpha Dog.  If you’re looking for the league’s best player, Dwyane Wade deserves more consideration than his more powder-throwing teammate.

LeBron can be the best player in the NBA should ESPN release a similar list next year, but naming him so now is premature.

This season is a new start for LeBron.  If he takes the pressure off himself to live up to everyone’s expectations, he can go back to being the player he was in Cleveland.  But even then, he’d still have to add the work ethic that the Greatests of All Time possess.    Having talent isn’t enough.  He has to do something with it.

The Problem(s) With Baseball

When you are born in Chicago, you are born into two birthrights.  The first is that you will never, ever, have to succumb to Big Pizza. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were such a special interest group as “Big Pizza”? Like “Big Oil” or “Big Pharma”? I want to live in a world where the president is reluctant to veto pepperoni subsidies for fear of the wrath of Big Pizza.)  The second birthright bestowed upon all Chicagoans is an allegiance to one of the two major professional baseball teams, the Cubs or the White Sox.  I was born a Cubs fan, a gift and a curse in and of itself.  Any time you can sum up a century-plus-long curse in one or two word phrases, it probably needs no further ellaboration.  Bartman*.  The Billy Goat.  Lou Pinella.  The gifts of being a Cubs fan are twofold, one more obvious than the other.

The obvious gift is that if and when the Cubs do win a World Series, you can say you’ve been a fan since the dog days way back when.  And since you never expect them to win, it will be a delight when they do. (This can’t be overstated.  The cathartic release when the Cubs finally win a World Series will move grown men to tears.)  The other, less obvious gift of being a Cubs fan is this: Never expecting (in fact, downright knowing) your team isn’t going to win the World Series allows you a sort of disconnection from the sport that other fanbases aren’t afforded.  A Yankees fan bleeds Jeter and Mariano Rivera and probably has kids named Mickey and Yogi.  He never worries about a losing streak or a batter in a slump because he knows that, ultimately, his owner and general manager have put the best product out on the field.  A Twins fan has a kid named Kirby and a dog named Santana and has gripes about the financial inequities that allow richer teams to monopolize winning while his team remains a step away from winning year in and year out.  In Matrix terms, the Twins fan took the red pill, and has seen the horror and despair of his favorite team’s up and down (and ultimately down) battles year by year.  The Yankees fans are high on the blue pill, never understanding why other teams aren’t as competitive and thinking that everybody signs with the Yankees because everybody wants to play for the Yankees, and the truckloads of cash being doled out have nothing to do with it.  Cubs fans?  We’re the ones in the movie theater wishing our shades were as cool as Morpheus’.

This sort of disconnection has afforded me the right to claim the following two statements with no irony and complete sincerity.  I am a Cubs fan.  I hate baseball.

I hate baseball.  I hate the slower-than-dial-up pace.  I hate the fact that everyone knew everyone was cheating and they all pretended they didn’t know to uphold the myth of the Legendary Baseball Player like some sort of patriotic-religious Rite of Denial.  I hate that managers wear jerseys and that we call them managers and not coaches because they, in fact, do not coach their players and so what the hell does anyone pay them for?  I hate that the winning team in the All Star game’s league gets home field advantage in the World Series.  I hate that every team gets an all-star, even if that team had no wins or any player with a positive batting average.  I hate that there are 162 damn games, thereby making the regular season this huge, lumbering Thing from which literally any baseball argument (and its counter) can be cited. (One exception. You cannot argue, by any stretch of any statistics, that Adam Dunn had a good season.)  I hate that sports outlets (newspapers, radio, ESPN) cover spring training like it means anything, sometimes at the cost of coverage to sports that are actually in season (Ok, you got me.  That was a basketball-slanted gripe.  I couldn’t care less if the Red Sox/Yankees spring training game cost me Wimbledon coverage.)  I hate so much about baseball that I can literally drop out from any given season until late September, when every game pitch means life or death and when players and managers play and manage as such.

All that being stated, baseball could be great if only a few things got changed.

First, the game’s got to speed up.  We live in a fast-paced world where all gratification is instant.  Baseball games have no time limit.  A “quick” game may be about two and a half hours, or length of the average basketball game.  Most baseball games are anywhere from three hours to three and a half, or the length of the average football game.  Why does football seem to go by faster than a baseball game? Because football is always moving.  Movement, now there’s a novel concept.  You know what 7 of 9 baseball players are doing 35% of the time?  Standing.  Absolutely.  Still.  Give a batter 15 seconds to get to the plate, a pitcher 10 seconds to throw a pitch, 20-second mound visits (and no more than two per game).  When a guy hits a home run, why does he have to round the bases?  We all know he hit it out of the park, and congratulations to him, now go sit back down.  Soccer is one of the most boring sports in the world, but it will always have the upper hand on baseball, because at least I know that the regulation time of every match is 90 minutes.  At a predictable length of time from the beginning of every soccer match, that match will end.  The same cannot be said for baseball.

Second, baseball needs to even the playing field when it comes to salaries.  Yes, I know that every once in a while a poor team squeaks through and beats the odds to win it all, but ask the Baltimore Orioles or even the Toronto Blue Jays if they feel confident about making the playoffs in a given year, and behind closed doors they’ll tell you that they can’t adequately compete with New York or Boston so long as the rich can spend whatever they want and continue to monopolize talent.  All things being equal, a competent general manager is more likely to feild a winning team when he can spend 200 million dollars as opposed to 50 million.  The NFL recognizes this fact, as does the NHL, as does the NBA.  Baseball is still in the dark on this.  W. T. F. ?

Some of baseball’s rot goes deeper.  Baseball players are generally drafted out of high school, though some go on to college.  Regardless, a baseball player isn’t likely to start making real money (by athletes’ standards, of course) until he is about 26 years old.  LeBron James, by age 26 was already taking his talents to South Beach on his second max ($15 million a year or so) contract.  If an elite athlete has the ability to choose between two sports with similar career life expectancies, why would he choose the sport where his earning potential is far less, or where he might not even play at the top level until he’s almost 30?  The cases of athletes choosing baseball over another sport for which they had the opportunity to play professionally are few.

This year, an Indianapolis Colts/Tampa Bay Buccaneers game handily out-rated the New York Yankees/Detroit Tigers game in New York.  Take a moment to let that previous sentence seep in.  The New York Yankees, presumably Major League Baseball’s most popular and powerful franchise, failed to out-rate a much less important football game between two non-descript teams whose best player (Peyton Manning) didn’t even play.  Baseball is dying the Slow Death, like an elderly family member wasting away with Alzheimer’s.  Sure, baseball will stay alive and in the public consciousness, but never again with the same national fervor it once enjoyed.

College Football Isn’t Worth It

When did we get to this place?  When did college football become an enterprise our society deemed Too Big To Fail?  In a system where the best case scenario is a player goes from not getting paid for getting his brain beaten in to getting paid for getting his brain beaten in, and the worst case is that decades pass before it is revealed that a school chose to harbor a serial child-rapist because he is too integral to the football program for them to lose, how did it come to pass that we made the institution of college football a bigger priority than the health and well being (not to mention the integrity) of the young men partaking in it, and of those defenseless boys, victims to a corrupt system they weren’t even a party to?

This is not an attack on football.  This is an attack on college football, an institution which may have no positive value to anyone near it.  The retort is predictable. “These kids get a college education in exchange for playing football.” But that’s a ridiculous premise on several fronts.  First, a college football player helps to generate more revenue than his team’s combined worth in college tuition for his school.  Second, the curriculum many of these kids have to assign themselves in order to stay football-eligible is laughable at best.  What most students would consider blow-off classes are the norm for most college football players.  Third, and this issue is perhaps the least explored in the media, is the hypocrisy of telling students to go out and play a sport that so commonly results in serial concussions which literally kill whole sections of their brains, and then repay those students with education.  It’s like hiring a guy to hand scrub a shark’s teeth, but then you pay him with piano lessons.

The only reason why college football exists is simple.  It generates billions for those corporations involved (ESPN, CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox Sports Net, The Big Ten Network, The Texas Longhorns Network, the NCAA, the individual conferences, the schools involved, the coaches).  Of course, with millions on the table for the individual schools, football becomes an addictive drug, the crack rock of our college education system.  A student at Notre Dame fell to his death because he was taping football practice from a hydraulic lift through gale-force winds.  Notre Dame’s response was horrific.  Notre Dame was under wind advisory at the time of the accident, but the team continued to play outside.  The kid, Declan Sullivan, posted on his facebook account during practice about how terrified he was.  The team continued to practice for 20-30 minutes after the accident.

Imagine this happened where you work.  Imagine one of your co-workers, an intern no less, dies in a horrific accident caused directly by the decisions of your boss.  Imagine that intern gets carted away by the medics, everyone regroups, and then goes back to work for the next half hour afterwards.  That wouldn’t seem odd to you?

In fact, that analogy doesn’t even quite equate, because it’s not like Notre Dame was in the middle of a game.  To quote the esteemed philosopher Allen E. Iverson, “We talkin’ ’bout practice. … Practice?!?”  So, in fact, this would be like an intern dying in your office softball game and then everyone else plays on 30 minutes afterwards.  Would beating the guys from Accounts Receivable really be more important than the death of the kid who was only working in your office for the college credits?

But college football is all-important.  Yes, the money a football program generates is enough to supplement all the rest of the sports in a given school, and enrollment in football schools can be at least partially attributed to the success of the school’s football team in bowl games.  Put slot machines in the student lounge, see if that raises any money for your school.  Take away football from a school and watch as students keep enrolling due to the — drumroll please — academic reputation of the institution.

The Jerry Sandusky story has been chronicled enough that I don’t expect anyone would read my little blog for more insight on the matter.  It’s disgusting, repulsive, and fundamentally evil what happened to those kids because of the power of Penn State’s football program.  But although it will remain the lightning rod for the greater issue of the rot of college athletics, and more specifically college football, it is hardly an isolated event.

The recruiting scandals, the concussions, the boosters (definition: people the schools get to do their dirty work), players sexually assaulting female students and getting away with it, the fact that 80% of the dumbest kids at any college in America play football, this all has to stop.  College football has to go.  Too many people are getting hurt and much, much worse because of it.  The bottom line is that it shouldn’t come down to the schools’ bottom lines.  Schools are supposed to shape young minds, not destroy them.  They are expected to be better than this.  Football may be the king, but even kings get beheaded sometimes.

How Barry Bonds Saved Baseball

Andy Warhol, probably the world’s best known pop artist, is perhaps most famous for his screen prints of different-colored variations of the same Marilyn Monroe portrait or his work with Campbell’s soup cans. (Although, I argue his greatest contribution to the world was his notion of everyone in the future getting “15 minutes of fame,” a prediction made true with the advent of reality shows, Twitter, facebook, and most directly, Youtube.)  While his work lifted everyday objects such as the soup can to the level of high art, Warhol was commenting on pop culture (and capitalism) as a whole.  The subject matter, the perseverance and patience to carry on the art’s repetitive nature, even the very process of (re)creating the art (Warhol had a studio – called “The Factory” – where he employed adult film actors, drug addicts, drag queens and all the rest of Lady Gaga’s key demographic to work an assembly line, mass producing his work like a corporation.  The process was the art.) was saying something about the consumerist culture that, by the 60’s, was growing out of the World War II era and reaching something vaguely resemblant of our society today.  Think Mad Men

The effect, of course, is that by reproducing the same image over and over, its essence is lost.  It’s no longer a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, it’s a Warhol.  He lifted the subject such that it ceased to have meaning without losing its sense of still being art.  It’s like repeating a word, any word, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until the word itself – that is, the collection of letters and sounds – separates from what the word means.  (It’s called jamais vu.  Never experienced that before?  Here, say the word “spoon” 90 times in a row.  Don’t continue reading until you have.  No seriously.)  Banksy, a truly original (perhaps the truly original) pop artist of our time says as much in his film Exit Through the Gift Shop.  “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them.”

In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs each hit home runs at a pace the game of baseball had never seen before.  They chased the record for home runs in a season, then 61, until September 8 of that year, when McGwire hit number 62 against Sosa’s Cubs.  McGwire would finish the season with 70, Sosa with 66.  The chase was enough to rejuvenate interest in the game of baseball for a nation that had soured on the sport since the player’s strike in 1994.  Suddenly, there was national interest in baseball again.  For one magical summer, people of all ages (and most certainly my generation) understood how important baseball must have been in post-war America, when the true legends of the game – Robinson, Mantle, Mays, DiMaggio – played the only game Americans seemed to care about with such fervor.  And no statistic in baseball was sexier – the “Marilyn Monroe”, if you will – as the home run.

Never mind that Sosa looked larger than he’d ever looked before.  Never mind that McGwire was caught with a supplement, androstenone, in his locker that wasn’t technically illegal but certainly spoke to a greater rot at the game’s core.  Never mind that before Albert Belle hit 50 home runs in the ’95 season, only three other players had achieved that mark in the previous three decades, but by ’97 another 4 players would join the 50-homer club.  No one cared then.  We chose to believe Sosa achieved his physique from a strict regimen of Flinstones vitamins. (Literally.  Sosa credited Betty Rubble for his Hulkish physique)  Denial is a hell of a thing.

Like an economic bubble, home runs were being hit with more regularity than ever before and at an increasing (unsustainable) rate.

Cut to 2001.  Barry Bonds, a player who, before that season, was known more for great defense, speed, and hitting than his home run totals, and a player who had never hit 50 home runs in a season before, broke Mark McGwire’s 3-year old record by hitting 73 homers.  Maybe it was his unlikable demeanor.  Perhaps his sudden explosion (at the age of 37, no less) was all too conspicuous.  (This was a player everyone knew was on performance enhancers.  You just don’t go from looking like Dave Chappelle your whole career to looking like the Thing at the age of 37.  As the legend goes, so envious was Bonds of all the attention given to Sosa and McGwire when it was he who was the best player in baseball, that he changed his entire approach to the game to prove once and for all who the best player of all time really was.)  Or maybe it was just because he is a black man.  Whatever the reason, Bonds’ record chase was met with decidedly more vitriol that McGwire/Sosa’s had been just a few seasons earlier.  “At least,” his critics maintained, “he’s too old and too far away to break the most important record in the game (or any other game, for that matter) – Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs”.  But Bonds didn’t stop at the single-season record.  He went on to average 32.5 home runs a year for the next 6 years, remarkable when you consider one of those years was injury shortened, and Bonds already had 5 home runs in 14 games.  His average over the other 5 of his last 6 seasons jumps up to 38 when you remove that one short season.  His utter destruction of any and all records associated with baseball’s sexiest statistic continued when, on August 7th 2007, Bonds hit his 756th home run, passing Aaron’s record, which had stood since 1976.

On August 7th of 2007, Barry Bonds destroyed the most hallowed record in sports.  On August 7th, Barry Bonds saved baseball.

Baseball historians were incensed.  “Put an asterisk next to his name!” “Bonds has made a mockery of America’s game!” “In my book, Henry Aaron is still the home run king!”  The media (Read: ESPN) carried on the debate in a way that had only until then been rivaled by Court TV during the OJ trial.  And the children! Oh how the children cried! (Ok, to be fair, children didn’t care.  This is because children inherently know that sports aren’t real life, and athletes aren’t real people.  Athletes, to a child, are like Dora the Explorer, if Dora explored syringes.)  Bonds took the heat as the game’s premier cheater, even though he was only following in the footsteps of those who came (three years) before him.

Before all was said and done (and Barry Bonds was black-balled out of baseball), Bonds would hit another 6 homers, giving him 762 for his career.  But the magic was gone.  People looked twice at every player having a conspicuously good year.  Fans went back and re-examined the home run chase that had brought so many of them back to baseball.  Experts and sports pundits clung to the remaining “untainted” giants of the game like a child clings to a teddy bear hoping it will protect him from the monsters in the closet. (Every player who laced ’em up during the Steroid Era is tainted.  That’s what makes the Steroid Era so tragic.)   Detractors of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez began to root him on, hoping he’d recapture the home run crown for the Good one fateful day. (The movement subsided quickly when A-Rod was found to be a steroid user as well.)

Barry Bonds had done to the home run what Andy Warhol had achieved with the Marilyn prints – he mass-produced home runs systematically as a commentary on the absurd value of home runs systemically.  Bonds never wanted to be the monster he became.  It was his appallment from the acclaim Mcgwire had been given as some American hero when he did literally nothing well except hit home runs, which were obviously the result of performance enhancing substances.  In his mass-production, Bonds succeeded at lifting home runs to the level of the highest in athletic achievement such that they lost their value entirely.  They were Marilyn Monroes before Barry.  Bonds made them soup cans.

Nowadays, the home run has subsided.  It seems almost as if baseball is embarrassed by them.  A player knocking a baseball 500 feet away from him is the most blatant reminder that there are drugs people can take to give them such strength.  Fans seem to be much more impressed with the “5-tool player” (the type of player Bonds used to be) than with the smasher.  Last offseason, the most sought after free agent wasn’t Adam Dunn, the prolific home run hitter who routinely got to the 40-homer plateau in the first decade of the 2000’s and who had hit 38 in each of the last two seasons.  It was Carl Crawford, a player who never hit more than 19 home runs, but who routinely steals 50 – 60 bases a year and bats near a .300 average.  Actually, the comparison between Dunn and Crawford to Mcgwire and Bonds is apt until you realize that Bonds actually hit home runs at the same clip as Dunn but with similar speed and hitting numbers (Bonds averaged 10-15 less less stolen bases and 15-20 more home runs than Crawford, but with a higher batting average than either Crawford or Dunn.) to Crawford, and that was before the steroid-induced 73-home run season.

This season, Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays in on track to once again eclipse 50 home runs for the second time in as many years.  Previous to last season, Bautista had never hit more than 16 with any of the 5 teams he played for.  Should he come close to 73, there will be coverage.  But it will be the coverage befitting such an event.  It will not be some sort of commemoration of the American Spirit, nor will Bautista be the hero that McGwire and Sosa were before him.  He’ll just be the guy who happened to break the record of the guy who made that record meaningless.  Just another Marilyn.


The Kempies

The NBA is in full lockout mode.  The last time this happened (1998.  Chicago fans will remember this as the offseason after Jordan’s final game with the Bulls, which was followed by a 6-season, Corey Benjamin/Eddy Curry induced blackout.), the results were catastrophic.  David Stern grew a lockout beard that haunts my dreams to this day.  16 players organized a “charity game” which was designed to raise money for the NBA Players Association. (You will never find footage of this game.  It’s like David Stern had it all redacted from the public records.  It did wonders for the players’ image.  Anthony Mason showed up in a black fur coat with a white fur “14” on the back.  Pre-murder case Jayson Williams was a color commentator.  And it was the first time in months anyone had seen Shawn Kemp, which is also the first anyone had seen the 100 lbs. of muscle beer Shawn Kemp had gained since the lockout started.  If anyone has footage of this game, please send it my way, or at least post it on Youtube. A nation thanks you.)  Ratings dropped for three seasons after the lockout.  The loss of Michael Jordan left a void for the NBA’s marquee player (Kobe and KG were still pups, Shaq had been swept out of every playoffs in his career, and Tim Duncan had has about as much personality as Mel Gibson has bar mitzvah invitations.), a void which was legitimately filled by Latrell Sprewell (Yes, that Latrell Sprewell.) for at least a couple of months.

The ’98 lockout was resolved in time to save the ’99 season, although it had to be abbreviated to 50 games from the regular 82.  Since then, both sides have put off fixing the real problems with the league’s financial problems (The contracts are gauranteed, which wouldn’t be a problem if players like Eddy Curry didn’t get 6 year deals for upwards of 75-100 million dollars based on a couple good weeks of basketball in the last year of their contracts.  The salary structure doesn’t really protect smaller markets like Oklahoma City, Sacramento, or Charlotte, nor does it help them keep their star players.  Probably most importantly, there is no system for revenue sharing like they have in the NFL, so New York will always turn a profit no matter how terrible while New Orleans struggles to survive even though it’s been to the playoffs more in the past decade.), and now it seems this lockout may threaten to delete the entire 2011-2012 season.  Bummer.

Who will the casualties of this lockout include?  We already know Yao Ming is retiring.  We may have seen the last of Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, and other older players.  Some players have even signed contracts overseas. (Most notably, Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets.  Most of these players have opt-out clauses in their contracts should an NBA season actually occur this year.)  But aside from actual retirements, which players will come back as shells of their former selves?  Who among the NBA players will gain a hundred pounds of molten hops, or fail to work out for a solid year, or get incarcerated after a high speed chase with the Minnesota state police? (Wow.  The answer to all three might be Michael Beasley.)  Well, without further ado, here are the pre-season lockout awards. (Which I’m totally calling “The Kempies.”)

Most likely to gain a solid flabby hundred lbs:  Shawn Kemp set the standard for this Kempie.  He went into the ’99 lockout a svelt 240, and came out on the other end no smaller than 310.  No athletic activity for 9 months made Shawn a fattie.  Why wouldn’t someone who gets paid to be athletic keep his body in shape during a work stoppage?  If anything, it’s a great time to add some good weight while still keeping your athleticism.  It takes a special kind of lazy to not work out at all and allow yourself to get that big.  Who can take the torch from the man whose name lives on in infamy?

And the Kempie goes to…Baron Davis.  Baron Davis is out of shape when there are games, how can we expect him to get in shape when there aren’t?  Like Kemp, Baron could have been one of the very best to ever play his position, if it weren’t for his amazing lazy streak.  This guy’s work ethic is so bad he has to throw alley-oops from a car.  But seriously, he’s so lazy the LA Clippers (Yeah, he wasn’t good enough for the LA Clippers. THE LA mother-$%#@ CLIPPERS!) had to package a first round draft pick with him in order to make him valuable to another team. (They traded what became the first pick in the draft along with Baron to the Cleveland Cavaliers, forever adding the “…Derrick Williams was a Clipper?” chapter to the NBA’s “What if…” conversation).  If the NBA misses significant time this season, Baron Davis will be the league’s first 250 lb point guard. (Magic Johnson was probably about 250 when he came back from his HIV-induced retirement, but he came back a power forward.)

Honorable mention: Michael Beasley.  Anyone who’s nickname is “B-Easy” can’t love work all that much.  Add in some run-ins with the law over marijuana use, and suddenly the Beasley goes from talented if not moody swing forward to Oliver Miller‘s sponsee in Overeaters Anonymous.

Team most likely to benefit from a shortened season: In ’99, the the Utah Jazz, led by 108-year old  35-year old Karl Malone and 36-year old John Stockton tied for the NBA’s best record at 37-13.  Their top 6 players in minutes per game averaged nearly 31 years in age.  The San Antonio Spurs, the other 37-13 team, averaged the same, nearly 31 years in age, despite its top player being a 22-year old Tim Duncan.  The Miami Heat (33-17)? 31 years.  Veteran teams with continuity in their rosters do the best in a season where free agency, training camps, and the preseason are all cut short to accomodate a shortened season.  Expect Dallas, San Antonio, and Boston to benefit from this lockout more than the others.  (The Lakers get excluded because of their completely new coaching staff.)  But who will benefit from this lockout the most?

The Kempie goes to…the San Antonio Spurs.  Just as before, Tim Duncan and crew will benefit from this lockout more than the other teams.  The big three of Manu Ginobili, Duncan, and Tony Parker know each other better than any three players in the league, and the other pieces know where they fit and exactly what roles they fill.  Their average age?  30.

Honorable mention: The Boston Celtics.  Honestly, they’d be the winners if they didn’t stand to lose Big Baby Davis and Jeff Green this offseason (whenever it takes place).  They have the veteran leadership, coaching stability, and the hunger after being embarrassed by the Miami Heat last season.

Player we’ve seen play his last game in the jersey that made him famous: Back in ’99, this was an easy pick.  During the lockout, Michael Jordan injured himself with a cheap cigar cutter, severing a tendon in his right index finger.  Jordan retired from basketball a second time, never to be seen on the court again.  “But I thought Jordan came back to play with the Wizards?” you might be asking yourself.  Foolish, foolish child.  Why would Michael Jordan, the Greatest of All Time, play for a second-class organization like the Wizards? (If I keep wishing it never happened, it’ll be true some day.)  That wasn’t Michael Jordan, that was some sort of evil zombie, Black Lantern version of Mike. (Black Lanterns are the sole reason to hope DC and Warner Bros. don’t ditch the Justice League movies, even if the Green Lantern didn’t sell.  They’d have to repackage the idea somehow.  Imagine Batman as a Black Lantern.)  If I say to you “Michael Jordan,” and your first thought is “chubby guy on the Wizards,” something went terribly wrong in your childhood.  While we’ll surely see more retirements this extended offseason, which players will end up on another team before the new season starts?

And the Kempie goes to…Dwight Howard.  Look, I’m not sold that the Magic will trade him before the new season starts, but I’m also not sold that the new season will happen before Dwight’s contract reaches his early opt-out clause next summer.  Should there be some sort of abbreviated season ala 1999, Dwight (definitely) will (definitely probably) still (definitely probably maybe) be a (former) member of the Orlando Magic.  Count on it.

Honorable mention: Chris Paul.  Same story as Dwight, only without the same level of success.  The only thing keeping him in New Orleans would be some sort of not wanting to LeBron a city when it’s down, especially when that city is New Orleans.

Player most likely to be secretly hoping the lockout lasts a year: As players get on in years, their bodies wear out after taking a beating for 82 to 100-plus games year.  While a lockout is bad for the checkbook, older players have usually made more than enough money to sustain their families for several generations.  All that matters now is winning.  As we established earlier, a shortened season benefits older players moreso than younger ones.  So which of the NBA’s elder statesmen wouldn’t really mind so much if the season was cut short (or cut entirely)?

And the Kempie goes to…Kobe Bryant.  Kobe ended a strong season with a bumpy last 5 weeks or so, narrowly escaping the first round against the Hornets, and getting totally annhilated by the Dallas Mavericks.  His body broke down as the season wore on (Pau Gasol deciding to let Marc be the better Gasol brother didn’t help).  After the season, word broke the Gray Mamba had a controversial knee procedure to help rejuvenate his old legs.  If anyone wants the time off, it’s Kobe Bean Bryant.

Honorable mention: Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James (for very different reasons).  I couldn’t decide on one or the other, so they tied.  One of them gets to bask in the glory of the Finals until next season starts.  The other gets the extra time to work on his (lack of a) post up game.  One of them gets the limelight prominently on himself, while the other gets to escpape the unfair (totally fair) criticism the media (Read: everyone except ESPN.) hit him with everyday.  One got to travel back to his homeland, where he was greeted like some ancient hero of Greek mythology come back from slaying the Minotaur.  The other can never go back to the city he called home for 8 years, which would be sad if that city wasn’t Cleveland and his new city wasn’t Miami.  Seriously, LeBron is spending his offseason kicking back on the beach, making out hanging out with Dwyane Wade.

The Death of the American Sports Hero

The generation before mine knows exactly where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot.  The media tells me I should remember where I was when Princess Di…um, died.  I’ll never forget where I was when Michael Jordan announced his [first] comeback.  It was by fax.

In what would seem minimalist even by today’s 140-characters-or-less age, MJ sent a fax to the press that read, simply, “I’m back.” (That’s 9 characters, by the way.)  It took 9 characters for the city of Chicago, as I remember it, to go ape-shit.  Cars veered over to the sides of the roads.  Total strangers danced and high-fived each other in the streets like MJ’s fax had just slain the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  The news interrupted whatever the hell eleven-year old me was watching that day (Probably X-Men but possibly a rerun of Small Wonder.  Fox had this weird Saturday morning lineup that went from pretty great cartoons to American Gladiators to reruns of Family Ties, Small Wonder, and Mr. Belvedere.)  My mother worked Saturdays (She worked every day that ends in a “Y.”), and my brother was at his ice skating class, which left me home alone.  When my father and brother came home, we each oozed with the excitement that only comes on Christmas morning or when Daniel-san got into crane position. (No, wait, I was definitely watching NBC’s tween lineup of Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, and Hang Time.)  What’s intrigued me about that moment as I’ve looked back at it over the years, is that at the time Jordan 9-charactered his way back into the world spotlight, I wasn’t a sports fan.  I couldn’t have told you how many players it takes to field a football team or even what the Bulls’ record had been up to that point that year. So why was the news of Jordan’s triumphant return exciting to me?

Because he was my hero.

Not to get all Andy Rooney, but in my day (I cannot believe I just used those words), there was an air of mystery(even mythology) surrounding our sports heroes.  Of them all, Jordan was the most untouchable.  Simply put, you never believed the Bulls were going to lose so long as MJ was lacing up Nikes.  But it went deeper than that.  As a child, I can’t remember anyone reporting on Jordan’s mammoth gambling addiction.  I don’t recall a single printed word devoted to unearthing his extra-marital affairs.  In fact, the only things we were ever told about MJ just served to reinforce his legend.  He physically scrapped with players who weren’t giving it their all in practice.  He practiced longer hours and pushed himself harder than anyone.  Ever.  He loved his father and his wife and his kids.  For Chicagoans at least, Michael was as close to Superman as you could experience in reality. (The man could fly for Christ’s sake!)  And that’s how we felt.  We had a super-human fighting on our side.  Your side was just going to have to accept losing to the Best That Ever Did It.  I suspect the kids in New York felt similarly about Patrick  Ewing, just as the Hoosier Youth felt about Reggie Miller.

But that era’s over now.

Now, even the kids (Read: “tweens.” Kids younger than 10 still consider cartoon characters to be role models.  Stupid kids.) know that Kobe is an alleged rapist, that Manny Ramirez is a head case, and that T.O. is a douche bag.  They know that LeBron choked in the Finals, that Michael Vick just got out of prison, and that every great power hitter since they were born is most likely juicing.  And how do they know this?  Because the information is being fed to them literally every second they flip on one of the dozen or so ESPNs (remember when the idea of ESPN 8, or, “The Ocho” was a punchline in Dodgeball?).  The 24 hour news cycle has killed the Sports Hero as we used to know it.

Don’t believe me? Quick, let’s play some word association.  Barry Bonds.  Tiger Woods.  Brett Favre.  Lance Armstrong.  In order, I’m willing to bet your answers went something very close to “Steroids, Hoes in Different Area Codes, Sexting, Doping.”  To be fair, two of these transgressions aren’t even against the law, they’re just instances of general douchebaggery.  To take it one step further, I’m not saying  MJ wasn’t guilty of one (or all- yes, even the steroids) of these offenses, just that there wasn’t the same coverage of it.  Oddly enough, the 24-hour news cycle as it stands today owes itself to the grandaddy of sports hero-turned-word association experiments: O.J. Simpson. (Pre-1995, your answer would have been either “Heisman”, “Hall of Fame”, or “Naked Gun.”)

The irony of it is, had MJ come along today he wouldn’t have grabbed the national spotlight in the same way he did because he’d be everywhere.  There’s a certain saturation point that’s just right, and then there’s the “Why is Michael Cera in every movie about a scraggily guy?” over-saturation point.  Jordan would be the nightly lead on Sportscenter for his gambling exploits in Vegas during the regular season, he and his mistresses would be plastered all over the tabloid racks in supermarkets, and he’d still be the world’s greatest pitchman (Also, sadly, Space Jam still happens in this alternate universe, but it stars Spongebob).  We even started to see glimpses of what MJ in the internet age would look like with his mistresses extorting him and his $168 million divorce settlement.  Long story short, Jordan is lucky he came along just before the Deadspin.com era.

It’s sort of like the Presidency.  Did Abraham Lincoln bang an intern in the Himself Bedroom?  Maybe.  Would said intern have been able to tweet about it later? Doubtful, unless she owned a DeLorean.  We used to be satisfied building up our heroes.  Now the process isn’t complete until we’ve torn them down.  (Maybe this is why sports movies suck nowadays.  They all follow the Rocky paradigm when they should be following Goodfellas.)

I suppose the bright side to all of this is that we love a redemption story even more than the fallen hero story.  If LeBron, say, loses Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to injuries for a season, and manages to win the title by putting the Juwan Howard All-Stars on his back and carrying them there, all will be forgiven.  Likewise, should Michael Vick run into a burning kennel and mouth-to-mouth a labradoodle back to life, no one will remember him as the Heinrich Himmler of the canine community.  But, we may still have to suffer something along the lines of a “man CPRin dogz like crazy n ths b” tweet flashing across ESPN 12’s crawl at the bottom of the screen.  It’s no “I’m back,” but then again, that was a different Michael.