Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Goal

Forgive the hyperbole, but Landon Donovan's goal, which came, at long last, in the 91st minute of a desperate, relentless American attack, is arguably one of the most important goals in the history of American soccer. Within 17 seconds, the U.S. men's team went from sure elimination to capturing Group C and a well-earned trip to the Round of 16. The impact of Donovan's goal, started by a wonderful outlet from keeper Tim Howard, should be felt around the country for years to come. (I can't help but think of a new generation of soccer fans born yesterday morning.) This was a real moment: On the world's stage, with all eyes on Preteoria, the hitherto underachieving Yanks finally broke through. If not for Donovan's career-defining goal, Bob Bradley would have surely been ousted and the Americans, despite their inborn talent, would have been faced with four more years of self-doubt, recrimination, and regret. Standard operating procedure, really, for American soccer. Instead, they found a way.

For those of us who never fully committed to the team, myself very much included, yesterday's match was a revelation, our come-to-Jesus moment. It was as good as it gets, and well worth the wait.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Still Crazy After All These Years

By now, most everyone has watched and re-watched and forwarded Ron Artest’s naked, unapologetic display of cuckoo after the Lakers, largely behind his and Pau Gasol’s herculean efforts, outlasted the Celtics in an epic, if not exactly poetic, Game 7. The clip is just the latest example of Ron-Ron’s id jumping the rails. As Artest antics go, though, his benign, slightly endearing, exhibition of crazy falls well short of 2004’s red-eyed Malice at the Palace. In fact, the initial reaction to Artest’s interview, at least on Twitter and Facebook, was one of solidarity, a near-unanimous recognition online of a socially acceptable level of Artest’s trademarked brand of crazy. That he openly thanked his psychiatrist (before plugging his new single, titled "Champion") only added to the interview’s apparent quaintness. Interviewer Doris Burke even chuckled at his remarks, as one would in response to the ramblings of an older, slightly off-kilter aunt or uncle. I laughed, too. But make no mistake: It’s still crazy talk. Just because he now sports a championship ring, doesn’t mean Derek Fisher or any other sensible adult is willing to leave his children, unsupervised, in Artest's charge. No one would even trust Artest with their ficus or to fetch their mail.

Bethlehem Shoals pins the tail on the crazy:
Except this narrative ignores the obvious: Ron Ron ain't changed a lick. That lens exists entirely for others to change their opinions of QB's finest. You could sense the breaking point during the interviews: Ron isn't screaming with passion and pride like KG, saying all the right things and giving the oddball athlete's equivalent of an acceptance speech (strangely, how the post-game interview was labeled on YouTube). He is frothing, babbling, letting loose more than ever. His shrink? Profuse apologies to every Pacer ever? Crazy visions from the future? If you felt like a real FD fanboy, you could say that Artest has never been more Artest than he was last night. The joke was on everyone else. The man got his title, and suddenly, he got more of a platform, and more attention, than ever for his personality. If anything, this vindicated the Ron Ron that he supposedly grew out of. Dude is still nuts. He's only "new" or "different" for those who need him to be. And they're letting the optics mess with common sense.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Argentine coach Diego Maradona, whose long-standing relationship with emotional and mental volatility is its own sport, let his freak flag fly before, during and after his team’s 4-1 win over South Korea. After Lionel Messi was pulled down for the second time in the first half, Maradona, sporting two wrist watches--one set for Argentine time; the other, local time-- nearly charged Huh Jung-moo, the South Korean coach, on the sideline. As if that exhibition weren't enough, Maradona made a show of telling uninterested reporters why embracing and kissing his players, as he did when they exited the pitch is no big deal. "I like women," he explained in a homophobic rant. "I'm dating Veronica, she's 31, blond and beautiful. I'm not bending my wrist, man. I'm grateful to the players for the job they did, that's it. It's a matter of affection."

Before the World Cup, people (rightfully, I think) questioned Maradona's ability to shepherd Argentina through the rigors and vagaries of the international tournament, much as people over here questioned, however less vociferously, what the addition of the volatile Artest would do to the Lakers' chemistry at the start of the NBA season. Success, though, finds a way of blurring the line between charming idiosyncrasies and crazy-ass craziness.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sound and Fury at the World Cup

Much noise has been made this World Cup over the vuvuzelas, the three-dollar, multicolored plastic horns that wail throughout World Cup matches. Ardent and casual fans of the beautiful game have reserved some of their ugliest epithets for what World Cup organizers insist is the joyful expression of South African culture. “It’s our way of celebrating life, celebrating football,” said Neil van Schalkwyk, the vuvuzela’s inventor. “It’s our 12th official language.”

That’s all well and good, but Schalkwyk’s championing of South Africa's rich culture hasn’t stopped most football fans from droning on and on and on about the plastic horn's incessant droning. At the behest of their viewers, ESPN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera have all looked into airing future “vuvuzela-free” broadcasts. (Until then, Lifehacker offers a primer on how to do it yourself.) Physicians, too, recently complained the vuvuzela could, in addition to driving viewers batty, spread cold and flu viruses germs, potentially becoming a Horn of Ill Will. Following a series of early draws and a spat of general uninspired, if not downright poor, play, the vuvuzela has become the prevailing story of the 2010 World Cup. The plastic horn even has its own Twitter account. And a fake one.

Animosity toward the vuvuzela isn’t just limited to fans. French captain Patrice Evra blamed the vuvuzela for le jeu merde de Les Blues, telling any reporter who would listen the horns prevented player communication on the pitch and, mon dieu, even disrupted their sleep. (Though former French captain Zinedine Zindane, consonant in name only, head butted Evra’s claim, laying the fault of the French’s poor play at the feet of coach Raymon Domenech. “He’s not a coach, he’s a selector.”) Not to be outdone, Argentine Lionel Messi, arguably the best footballer in the world, complained the vuvuzela’s incessant buzz handicapped his skills. “It’s like being deaf.” Leave it to the Swiss, though, to sidestep international furor. In preparation for the team’s upcoming match against Spain, the World Cup favorites, coach Ottmar Hitzfield invited local fans to the team’s latest practice to help acclimate his players to the vuvuzela’s tensile drone. Swiss defender Philippe Senderos summed up neatly his country’s two hundred year-old policy of neutrality. "I think we've got to learn to live with it and adjust to it," he said. "That's the way it is and the way it's going to be until the very end."

Not everyone is upset with the vuvuzela. I, for one, enjoy it. Of all the silly football traditions, I rank the vuvuzela well above the Wave, road flares, general acts of hooliganism, Alexi Lalas. The Paris Review’s Will Frears likes it, too, although he casts his pro-vuvuzela vote for geopolitical reasons.
I think they’re fantastic. If the story of this World Cup so far is the story of Northern European ascendancy, in style if not in content, the vuvuzela is doing all it can to resist the hegemony: the players can’t hear the coaches or each other, the national songs are being drowned out, and the spectators sitting in their safe European homes are having their viewing pleasure disturbed. Welcome to Africa.
Rivaling the vuvuzela in complaints is the Jabulani, the official ball of the World Cup. Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic commented on the ball's unpredictable knuckling action. "I think that it is not easy to control the ball in the air," he said. "It's very quick, more in the air than at the feet. I think if the ball hits the ground you get good control. But all the teams have problems with the ball, so it is not an excuse." Backup U.S. goalie Marcus Hanhemann wasn’t so forgiving. “It’s horseshit,” he said. “It’s the worst soccer ball I’ve ever played with.” Keeper Robert Green, England's Hand of Clod, inexplicably went out of his way to blame the ball for his botched attempt on Clint Dempsey's desultory shot. "The ball may well have moved," Green said. "I don't often miss the ball by that much." That’s one way of explaining away his poor play. However incredulous Green's claim, it’s far more believable than pinning it on on the vuvuzela. Even in England, where crying foul regularly subs in for the national sport, such a complaint would only fall on deaf ears.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Indomitable Lions

I have a confession to make: In international play, I rarely root for the United States men's team, although, in fairness, I never actively root against them. I know it's unkind and probably unpatriotic, but nationalism does not dictate my sports allegiances. It's not like the American's make it easy on soccer fans. Their uneven play leaves me cold, and Landon Donovan's mercurial performances make me apoplectic. With that much natural talent, he should play at a high level every time he sets foot on the pitch. That said, I will pull for the U.S. against England, those blimey bastards, and keep at least one eye on the rest of their matches, however many they end up playing.

During the World Cup, I usually rally around an African team, more often than not Nigeria. This year, though, I'm getting behind Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, a formidable team led by the wonderfully named Samuel Eto'o, a talented striker, and central defender Rigoberto Song. The team is coached by Frenchman Paul Le Guen, who was hired during qualifying matches after the Lions dropped an early match to Togo. Upon his hiring, Le Guen handed over the captaincy from Song to Eto'o, and the Lions have played well ever since, with Song finally playing up to form and Eto'o finding the back of the net with regularity. Like SI's Grant Wahl, I expect Cameroon to advance out of Group E, along with the Netherlands, before knocking off the Azzurri in the second round.

So, that happened. After their 1-0 loss to Japan, Cameron's chances of advancing out of the group stage, are now pegged at an uninspiring 18 percent, according to 538. In like lions, out like lambs.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sports and The New Yorker

In today's Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews David Remnick. The entire interview, which covers everything from the Obama Administration to Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is worth a read, but I wanted to point out the following Remnick quote about his magazine's paucity of sports features.
I love my colleagues, but if I went into a meeting with my fellow editors and I suggest sports ideas, the look of uncomprehending, slack-jawed boredom that crosses most of their faces is stunning. Some of the writers are very into it—Ben McGrath, Nick Paumgarten. Weirdly, Susan Orlean has written a couple of sports pieces. OK, they tend to be on the Westminister Dog Show...
Remnick has a point. When the New Yorker does cover sports, the articles are a bit tweedy. The Gladwell piece about head injuries in the NFL, for instance. But that's OK. Trust me, the world would be in much worse shape if the New Yorker, or the New York Times, for that matter, were the go-to places for sports information. At the same time, I do think the magazine's sports coverage has improved in recent years. The previous issue included a nice piece about Tim Howard and the U.S. men's soccer team, which featured this outstanding Man United chant honoring Howard, a lifelong sufferer of Tourette's syndrome: "Tim timiney/Tim timiney/Tim tim ter-oo/We've got Tim Howard/And he says 'fuck you'." In the past year, too, I've read interesting features about lacrosse, and, more recently, Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward. There's also Sporting Scene, the magazine's sports blog. Senior Editor Amy Davidson also devotes significant space to sports in her blog, Close Read, when she's not tackling BP and the Gulf spill, and other world events of significance. And, of course, there's always the inimitable Roger Angell, who continues to write with charm, as he does about everything else, about CC Sabathia's "sunny looks and pavilion-sized pants and weird, white-toed spikes."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Derek Fisher

The Celtics and the Lakers decided to ditch the jabs and fancy footwork last night, and instead traded body blows for 48 grueling minutes. In the end, Derek Fisher was the last man standing. Without him, the Lakers would have left the court last night trailing the best of seven series two games to one. There's really no need for analysis here. Fisher simply wanted last night's game more than anyone else on the court, including Kobe and a resurgent Kevin Garnett. Fisher scored 11 of his 16 points in the 4th quarter, when the Celtics were thisclose to overtaking the Lakers.

Throughout a physical and exhausting final 12 minutes, the Celtics cut the Lakers' lead to one, one, two and two points. But each time, the Lakers responded with a timely basket. Sure, Kobe and Gasol contributed down the stretch, but as the clip below demonstrates, Fisher just took over the game's final minutes. His 1 v. 3 drive to the hoop was balls. "You know, I love what I do," he said after the game, fighting back tears. "And I love helping my team win. To come through again tonight for this team, 14 years in, after so many great moments, it's always quite surreal and quite humbling to experience it again."

I'm not at all surprised Fisher broke down during his post-game interview. He must have been exhausted. It's hard work carrying a team on your shoulders. Kobe's got some serious baggage.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

NBA Finals

I realize I'm late on this, but I wanted to get some of my scattered thoughts down before tonight's game. So far, this has been one of the most entertaining and contested Finals in recent memory. Games 1 and 2 were intense, back-and-forth affairs, as the Lakers and the Celtics executed at extremely high levels, save for a quarter or two here and there, and, sadly, the entirety of Kevin Garnett's 59-minute burn. Both teams, ever mindful of the situation, played with a palpable instinct for blood, just as Black Jesus intended.

In Game 1, Kobe Bryant put up an easy 30, driving to the basket at will, while Game 2 saw Ray Allen nail eight 3-pointers, a Finals record. The star of the Finals, though, has been Rajon Rondo, who is quickly becoming one of the four best players in the NBA. (When he's on, he's arguably the Association's most exciting). Not to be outdone by Kobe or his teammate, Rondo took over a tight Game 2, finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. During one crucial stretch, Rondo swatted from behind Derek Fisher's three-point attempt and, later, picked Bryant's pocket to ice the game. Somewhere in between, he put up 10 points. The Lakers had no answer for him. Here's a gorgeous slow-motion replay of Rondo's block, which shows Rondo's Balanchine-esque movements and the Celtics' formidable team defense.

Simply marvelous. Of course, the above series of events could have unfolded differently if Ron Artest took the open look. But I guess they don't take 3s, or drive to the basket, in Queensbridge.

The Celtics did what they had to do: Steal a game in Los Angles, where the Lakers hadn't lost in nine previous games this postseason. Kobe and company now have to win at least one game out of the next three in Boston just to make it back to L.A. A reachable objective, for sure, but if the previous two games are at all any indication of how the rest of the series will unfold, one that won't come easily. This series feels like it's going the distance, and I have no idea whether the Lakers or the Celtics will come out on top, a welcome change of pace after four consecutive underwhelming Finals. What can I say? Good, competitive basketball is always in demand round these parts, and is at a premium in May and June.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Perfection's Rejection

I can't even begin to imagine what was going through MLB umpire Jim Joyce's head when he called Indians rookie Jason Donald, he of the career 50 at-bats, safe at first base on what should have been the final out of Armando Galarraga's perfect game.

Not only did first baseman Miguel Cabrera's throw beat Donald by at least a full step, but the game was played in Detroit. Perfect game. At home. Close play at first. No visiting player would ever get that call, not even Derek Jeter in October, let alone a recent call up from AAA.

Out of tragedy, though, comes some kind of triumph, courtesy of The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who delivered the line of the night.
Armando Galarraga is robbed, absolutely robbed, of a perfect game by an umpire who should seek employment with either BP or with the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

When The Risk Outweighs the Reward

Based on most estimates, the BP well is spewing into the Gulf of Mexico about 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil a day, roughly 504,000 or 798,000 gallons every 24 hours. If the leak continues unabated until August, as many experts expect, the total amount of oil leaked will end up somewhere between 1.08 million and 1.7 million total barrels, roughly 45 million to 71 million gallons. That's a hell of a lot of oil. Enough oil, for instance, to threaten the Gulf Coast's fragile ecosystem, while simultaneously kneecapping the region's economy. Not enough oil, though, to meet or exceed even 8.5 percent of our daily consumption of oil, which stands, with or without the Deepwater Horizon explosion, at a shocking 21 million barrels a day.

Robinson Cano

Earlier this year, I predicted Robinson Cano would have a monster year. Thus far, the kid's exceeded by about 20 miles my bullish call for 20+ homers, 100 RBI and a batting average well above .300. As of this morning, Cano's batting .363 with 11 home runs and 41 RBI. His 73 hits are the most in the Majors, and his glove work at second base has been nothing short of wonderful. Blessed with one of the prettiest swings in the show, and a new-found discipline at the plate, Cano has a legitimate shot at winning an American League batting title, if not the league's Most Valuable Player award. Even if he were to fall short in either pursuit, I'd still consider it an absolute joy watching Robbie ply his trade 162 times a year; it really is a thing of beauty.