Category Archives: Sports

PODCAST: NBA Finals Preview!

Touchdown!

Touchdown!

Brother Dan, coming off a grueling cross-country drive, called into the Another Beer Salesman studios to discuss the NBA Finals, Lebron’s Eastern Conference vs. Magic’s Western Conference, how crucial Andrew Bogut’s health is for the Warriors’ championship run, the sad state of the Celtics, and how the Sixers are like the Avengers, but without CGI. Get ready people.

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My Pedro story on Slate

Here is my piece on Pedro Martinez that ran a few weeks ago on Slate.com.

http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2015/05/pedro_book_review_pedro_martinez_s_memoir_offers_insight_into_the_boston.html

When I was 15-years-old I had a wallet that carried, outside of whatever few dollars I could wrangle from my parents, one thing: a small piece of paper torn from the pages of a Sports Illustrated. It was a quote from Pedro Martinez that appeared in a March 2000 cover story, a story I read probably a dozen times before I carefully removed a small confetti-sized block of text from the magazine and folded it neatly into my empty Velcro wallet. This is what it read:

“There are days when I first get out to the mound and it feels just like this, like the
plate is closer than it’s supposed to be. Then I know right away. It’s over. You are f—–. F—–.”

To a high school freshman in central Maine, Pedro Martinez was the baddest, coolest motherfucker on the planet. I was a freshman attending a high school a town away from the tiny K-8 I had attended, and I was usually overwhelmed with trying to fit in, trying to have an actual human conversation with girls at school, and trying to carve out some playing time on the horrible varsity baseball team I rode the bench for. I used to take that quote out of my wallet and read it, even though I had it memorized, and for a moment use Pedro’s boundless confidence to ground myself in the relentless waves of hormonal anxiety that most of us remember from those years.

Pedro was 5’10 and skinny, like me, but he dug in and made hulking, ‘roided up goliaths look silly with four filthy pitches, and not only that, but he made them back off the plate with chin music when they leaned in, and he did it while putting up some of the greatest pitching statistics ever in a period when baseball’s competitive balance was tilted further toward the hitter than any other time. Pedro Martinez, defiant, funny, fiercely intelligent and not afraid of anyone, was who I wanted to be. He was excellence multiplied by personality in way that we really haven’t seen in baseball since.

It’s over. You are f—–. F—–. What I wouldn’t have given to feel that kind of confidence, on the mound or anywhere else. Every time I read that quote I got goose bumps. I still do.

I took Spanish for the first time that year. All my assignments were signed “Pedro Keefe.”

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Pats Fans, Don’t Worry. I Figured Out Our Defense.

Look at this man. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.

Look at this man. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.

 

As a lifelong Patriots fan, I feel that having a basic understanding of what has become known as “deflategate” is sort of my duty, even though any attempt by Roger Goodell or the NFL to investigate or adjudicate anything is almost categorically doomed from the start, especially something as silly and inconsequential as whether footballs were slightly deflated. I felt that, like Spygate, this was an inconsequential bit of reckless competitive exuberance, a violation that was made horrible not from the advantage it gave the perpetrators but for the ammunition it gave their detractors. We are now talking about Tom Brady’s Legacy like it’s a stock. How will this affect his legacy? Do you expect to see his legacy dip when the market opens tomorrow? Please. Four Super Bowls are immune to market fluctuations.

All that being said, the Wells report seems to be a serious investigation, so let’s take it seriously. Before we do, let’s establish what we already know.

  1. The balls the Patriots used in the AFC championship were under inflated at halftime, a violation of league rules. The Colts’ balls were not, which would seem to rule out environmental factors as the cause of said under-inflation.
  2. Each team is responsible for providing their own game balls, thanks to a 2006 rule change that Tom Brady was instrumental in bringing about.
  3. The pressure of the balls were measured before the game by officials and were deemed legal.
  4. Tom Brady likes his balls at the low end of the pressure spectrum.
  5. Tom Brady at the time said publicly that he didn’t know anything about why the balls were underinflated. So did Bill Belichick (although Belichick sort of weirdly deflected all questions to Brady).
  6. Roger Goodell has monumentally fucked up every investigation he’s been a part of.
  7. Both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are infallible.
  8. Indianapolis is super annoying, hates gay people, and stole Baltimore’s team.
  9. Science is still out on how air pressure works.

Proceeding from those unassailable presuppositions, let’s examine the Wells report and figure out how to serve justice based on its contents.

The Wells report reaches the conclusion, which it states near the beginning of the text (talk about starting with a conclusion and working backwards!) that:

“It is more probably than not that Jim McNally (the Officials Locker Room attendant for the Patriots) and John Jastremski (an equipment assistant for the Patriots) participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee. Based on the evidence, it also is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady (the quarterback for the Patriots) was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.”

First of all, let’s dissect some of the legalese here. “More probable than not” is a sort of sloppy and unscientific way of saying “we have zero proof of this.” “More probable than not” would never get you a conviction in a court of law, and anybody who thinks that Roger Goodell has the legal authority to suspend someone and take away millions of dollars in pay based on “more probable than not” is out of their fucking minds. Will he try it? Maybe, he sort of has to if he wants to keep this “defender of the shield” nonsense going. After attacking the livelihoods of so many (mostly black) players with impunity, it would hurt his credibility to turn a blind eye to a supposed infraction from a white player who just so happens to be the (beautiful) face of football. It would, anyway, if Goodell had any credibility left to hurt.

The “evidence” that implicates Brady is almost exclusively limited to the texts between McNally and Jastremski. Those texts seem to indicate that Tom was pressuring McNally to keep the balls deflated and that he was giving McNally sporting goods in exchange for his off-the-books secondary job as Tom Brady’s personal ball handler (you would think that job would be its own compensation, but alas, we live in crass times).

McNally seems generally pissed at Brady. “Fuck tom” he texts to Jastremski (the report doesn’t indicate whether he was immediately struck by lightning after this was sent). In his anger at Brady for being a professional and asking him to prepare the balls according to the preferences of a four time Super Bowl champion, he seems to threaten that he will over inflate the balls, promising “watermelons,” “rugby balls” and “balloons” as retaliation.

What is clear from the text exchanges between McNally, Jastremski and Brady himself is that Brady was very particular about how he liked his balls. We know he liked them with less pressure, which is why McNally is always threatening to over inflate them and why Jastremski calls him a “Spaz” for making the same joke/threat for what we have to assume is a really annoying number of times. What there is no evidence of, however, is that Tom asked either of them to do anything illegal or against the rules. It does not take any sort of leap of faith to read the shit that Tom was giving McNally about ball pressure as a desire to keep the balls at the lowest legal point of pressure. Tom could have been giving him shoes and signed jerseys specifically for that reason, because Tom knew it was outside of the scope of McNally’s normal responsibilities and because the Patriots wouldn’t put “Tom Brady’s personal ball handler” as a payroll expense on the budget.

The Wells report tries to use one particular exchange as evidence that McNally knew he was doing something illegal and was at least jokingly threatening to go to the media with information. He texted Jestermski “jimmy needs some kicks…lets make a deal…come on help the deflator” followed by “Chill buddy im just fuckin with you ….im not going to espn……yet.” This exchange could just as easily be read as a negotiation: the employee (McNally) is trying to negotiate a better perks package at his job by threatening to take an offer of employment from ESPN. Did the Wells report people think about asking if McNally had ever applied to ESPN? Of course not.

The AFC championship game is one of the most high pressure games of the year. Everyone in the organization feels that pressure to be perfect, from Tom Brady all the way down to one James McNally. Jim McNally’s job was to deliver the balls, but maybe he was worried that the balls were not as Tom liked. Even though he wasn’t supposed to, maybe he deflated them a bit, not to push them under the legal limit, but to ensure they weren’t overinflated. After all, we know that Jastremski texted McNally that “I checked some of the balls this morn… The refs fucked us…a few of then [sic] were almost at 16.” Was it possible that McNally saw how overinflated the game balls were, and, knowing that he would be the one to hear about it if Brady was displeased with the ball pressure, decided to deflate the balls to a lower legal amount? Maybe he went too far, but that is his fault, not Brady’s.

The Wells report also makes a big deal out of the fact that Brady had many phone calls and even a meeting with Jastremski after the story broke following the AFC championship game, and uses this as some sort of evidence to implicate Tom, which is totally unfair. If Brady knew he had been pressuring Jastremski to keep the balls inflated to the lowest legal limit, wouldn’t he want to talk to him after the controversy erupted and the sky darkened under a cloud of fiery hot takes? Wouldn’t he want to get to the bottom of it? He’s a good employer, and, caring about his employee, wanted to shield him from a media shitstorm, so of course the “timing and frequency of telephone communications” was related to the scandal. That’s why he gripped the podium in terror and lied when he was asked about his ball preference: because he was trying to keep his guys out of trouble. He’s loyal to his people, maybe loyal to a fault, which is why when the NFL asked him about McNally, he pretended to not even know who he was out of loyalty. We should all be so lucky to have friends like Tom Brady, who forget we exist when times get tough.

So what, then, should happen next? What should Roger Goodell do, besides take his millions and retire to some island where he can suspend human being for sport so we never have to await his misguided judgement on situations like this ever again?

There is only one rational answer: he should make Jim McNally apologize for swearing at Tom behind his back via text. The NFL really needs to crack down on that kind of thing.

 

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My Name is Jonas (Gray)

jonas-gray

Happy Monday everyone. In honor of Jonas Gray’s 199 yard and 4 touchdown performance against the Colts last night, I present the following clip.

(Although If there was a Weezer song about elite offensive line play, I probably would have gone with that instead.)

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True Story Time: Randy Moss at Dave and Buster’s

I saw Randy Moss at a Dave and Buster’s in Providence, Rhode Island in March of 2013.  A good twenty percent of the clientele at D&B’s that day were wearing some kind of Patriots apparel, but nobody seemed to recognize him. Nobody, that is, except my Brother Dan.

randy on camera

Randy Moss was the subject of “Rand University,” the latest episode of the”30 for 30″ series that aired last night on ESPN. Combined with his job as an analyst on Fox Sports One, it seems that the rehabilitation of the greatest receiver I ever had the privilege to watch is nearly complete. Randy had his troubles and tantrums: some seemed like real dick moves, others were just the sort of things old white men love to complain about. He seemed misanthropic at times, joyfully exuberant at others. But now he has seemed to have slid comfortably into the part of any great athlete’s career when we appreciate him again, the part where we are just far enough away from the inglorious final years that the earth shattering prime is ripe for re-appreciation. He’s comfortable on camera, he’s funny, and he’s pretty charismatic. He still has that edge though, that slight distrust of it all. Even in a suit on a TV set, he’s still exudes a sort of independence and intelligence that most ex-players don’t. He’s still a badass, which is why we were intimidated to approach him at a Dave and Buster’s at noon on a Saturday, and why we certainly don’t have a picture to prove it (I don’t even think I had a smart phone at the time).

Myself, my cousin, and Brother Dan had converged on Providence from throughout the Northeast the previous day to see a Drive-By Truckers show at Lupo’s. After a night of drinking and crashing back at the hotel, we decided we would visit the Dave and Buster’s downtown before heading off in our separate directions. While we were there, shooting baskets at some of the many basketball games, Dan approached me and whispered in my ear.

“Dude, that’s Randy Moss.”

I turned and looked to see a black man, easily the tallest person in the room, wearing a green velour sweatsuit and a black Red Sox hat. He was standing back and watching what had to be eight or nine kids, ranging in age from four or five to sixteen or seventeen. He was the only adult with them all.

God forgive me, I denied it was him at first. “That’s not him,” I said. “Why would he be here? He just played in the Super Bowl like a month ago.”

Then I heard him speak.

“Y’all want to play over here?” he said to some of the children he was shepherding through the Dave and Buster’s. It was the same southern twang I had heard a hundred times in press conferences over the years. I could picture him saying “straight tickets, homie” when getting a stuffed animal before leaving. It was totally him.

We conferred with my cousin, frantically trying to determine what we should do. We shot baskets next to Randy to get a better look, like 12 year-olds trying to figure out a way to talk to girls at the mall. Yes, it was him, unquestionably him.

The place was packed, packed with oblivious New England fans. If we made a big deal in approaching him, it would ruin his day and his outing. We were keepers of a secret. Besides, what were we going to get from him? I’ve never understood people who see a celebrity and need to get a picture. They are like hunters who can’t just appreciate a wild animal without wanting to shoot it.

Also, it really seemed like there was zero chance Randy was letting us take a picture with him. I voted we do nothing.

“One of us has to go talk to him,” Brother Dan implored us.

“I’m telling you right now, I’m not going over there,” my cousin said.

Dan, who was 21 at the time, stood up straight and all 5’6 of him soared majestically toward the ceiling.

“I judge myself on how I respond to moments like these,” he said. “I have to say ‘hi’ to Randy Moss.”

Dan had owned a Vikings Randy Moss jersey when he was seven years old. It was the only non-Boston area jersey I ever remembered seeing in our house. Nobody was happier about Randy coming to the Patriots than Dan.

So cousin Matt came up with a plan: we would give the tickets we had earned that afternoon to one of Randy’s children. It would be a sort of offering. And in that moment, Dan would talk to Randy Moss.

I can’t explain the oceanic divide between how silly this sounds now and how important it seemed at the time, suffice to say that we were brutally hung over from the night before. Dan, unlike my cousin and I, was still young and spry.

“I’m nervous,” Dan said. “Okay.”

Randy was separated from his clan of children and was only with two girls, probably no more than seven years old, at an arcade game. There was no one else in the entire row of games. My cousin and I stood at the end of the row as Dan approached them, paper bucket of unwieldly yellow tickets in hand.

Dan, who was closer in size to the seven-year old in the pink dress than to Randy, approached. Randy stood over them, protectively, with no interest in playing the game himself. Me and my cousin were trying not to stare while straining to hear.

“Do you want my tickets?” Dan asked as he walked by, coolly turning over his shoulder to offer his tickets to the girls, as if he just thought of it, as if he was on the way to toss them in the trash and thought “oh, these girls might want these tickets, I’m sure their dad didn’t make $30 million playing professional football.”

Randy didn’t turn away from the screen of the game one of the girls was playing. He stared straight ahead.

“Say thank you,” he told one of the girls.

“Thank you,” she said.

Dan hesitated. Randy was still still fixated on the screen. He hadn’t turned his head or acknowledged Dan. Dan looked at us, and we looked back, giggling more than any two men in their late twenties should be allowed to do.

“Hey, Randy, I’m, uh, a big fan,” Dan said.

Randy’s eyes did not move off the screen. After the first moment without a response I wondered if he hadn’t heard him. Dan, to his credit, held his ground. Was he not going to respond? Was he really that much of an asshole? Another second passed, with the bells and whistles of video games making the tension even worse than it already was. Dan started to open his mouth again, then closed it. He had said it loud enough. And if it wasn’t Randy, the man in question would’ve turned to look at Dan and evaluate why he was still there, standing over his daughters, calling him Randy. Randy was looking ahead so steadfastly, so complete in his avoidance of my brother, that only a life of celebrity could have trained himself to be so intentionally oblivious to a person two feet away talking directly to him.

Dan began to turn.

And then, eyes still fixated on the screen and his daughter’s score, Randy stuck out his fist at Dan. Dan looked at it for a second, and then his eyes got big as he realized what was happening.

Randy Moss was offering a fist bump.

Dan, as nonchalantly as he could, bumped him back. Randy kept staring at the screen as he slowly put his hand back in his pocket, although I swear I saw a momentary smile crawl across his face before disappearing back into a scowl.

Dan turned and walked toward us. To this day, I don’t really care about not getting a picture with Randy (although for the purposes of this post it would have been nice). No, what I truly wish I had gotten a picture of was the moon-wide, gaping smile my brother burst into after he turned back toward us. He then quickly composed himself and we walked with him away from the aisle, not wanting to attract attention to the man who just a few months before had declared himself the greatest wide receiver of all time.

“Did you see it? Did you see the fist bump?!”

That’s how I will always remember Randy Moss. The guy who brought his kids and their friends to Dave and Buster’s in Providence, Rhode Island (why Providence?) on a Saturday afternoon a month after he played, and was barely used, in his second and last Super Bowl, and who somehow was only recognized by a 21-year-old kid, a kid he reluctantly let touch his hand.

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The Education of Marcus Smart: The “does he know mid-range jumpshots are allowed?” Edition

Marcus Smart’s shot chart looks like he’s been playing NBA Jam, which is a game that already existed when Marcus was born (how old do you feel right now?)

What is missing here?

What is missing here?

Those of us who are old enough to remember NBA Jam and haven’t slipped into senility quite yet will remember that there were really only two shots in that game. There was the three, which you took if you were John Stockton, and there was the dunk, which you threw down from the rafters if you were Karl Malone, because of course you played as the Jazz. You never took jump shots inside the three-point line. With the league now increasingly understanding the value of the three-point shot, and the folly of the long two (with one exception that is a continuing source of personal schadenfreude) more and more teams are playing the NBA Jam style offense: shots are taken either at the rim or from behind the three-point line. Brad Stevens is a staunch proponent of the NBA Jam offense, and that attitude has clearly rubbed off on young Marcus Smart.

Look a that shot chart. Through four games Smart hasn’t taken a shot between 5 and 20 feet from the basket.

Smart has shot poorly so far, but that was sort of to be expected, and given that Avery Bradley has somehow developed into one of the Celtic’s best shooters after starting his career as a pure defender who ran up and down the baseline on offense like he was playing dodgeball, it isn’t necessarily something to worry about. But how high can your shooting percentage be if 21 of your 30  shots are threes? Especially when you aren’t particularly good at shooting threes? Can you really develop much of a shot if you are only shooting threes and layups?

A mid-range pull up, to say nothing of the a well executed floater, is  a prerequisite of good guard play in the NBA. It would be nice to see Marcus shoot this. Of course, I’m not blaming Marcus for this, and this is a crazy small sample. But maybe Brad should let Marcus know that it’s okay to shoot from fifteen feet every now and again?

Kyle Lowry, the patron saint of wide-bodied point guards, torched the Celtics for 35 points last night. He is, at least offensively, who we hope Marcus grows up to be some day. After last night’s game, it was Smart’s roller coast ride of back to back offensive series down the stretch that got all the ink. He hit the big three to tie the game at 105 with just over a minute to play before Lowry picked his pocket to put the Raptors up for good. But what actually won the game was Lowry’s 18 footer with 8 seconds left that put Toronto up by three.

That’s a mid range jumpshot and it’s often all the defense will give a point guard, especially in crunch time, when the defense is taking away the deep ball and moving to help at the rim. It would be nice to see Marcus shoot one. Just once.

 

 

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Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady…at acting.

It’s Brady vs. Manning XVI in the snow at Foxborough!

This matchup has been broken down from every conceivable angle. Bill Barnwell went back and reviewed every game the two hall-of-fame quarterbacks have played against each other. Bill Simmons argued that Brady is more content to follow his coaches than Peyton because he grew up with older sisters (Simmons was an only child, forgive him for obsessing about siblings). I was going to try and break down today’s game based on each quarterback’s astrological signs (I mean, Peyton Manning is such an Aries, amirite?) but then I remembered that this has all gotten completely out of control and it was up to me to add some levity to all the somber monument constructing that’s been going on this past week. So let’s talk about Brady v. Manning in terms of their secondary careers as professional entertainers.

1. Acting

It’s important to remember that a large part of Peyton’s nerdy populist appeal is his incredible ease in front of the camera. Peyton is equally charming and natural whether he’s forcing a non-existent chemistry with Papa John, or he’s teaching children how to break into a car on SNL. Peyton is so relatable (to unathletic middle-aged white men) in large part because he seems like a regular guy in front of the camera, and because who hasn’t come home from work with a giant red spot on their forehead? Tom Brady has movie star looks but is painfully stilted in commercials and in his interviews he exhibits a friendlier version of Belichick’s “I’m here to talk about the Bears” approach. He’s like Joe Biden without all the gaffes.

Here’s Peyton’s best SNL skit. Notice how it is all Peyton: the camera never leaves him as he plays against type by portraying himself as a merciless sociopath. (wait, is that against type?)

Here’s Brady best SNL skit. It’s funny mostly because Tom doesn’t do much acting and serves as a pretty face. Also, he grabs Amy Poehler’s breast, which is a wonderful moment for me personally, since I love breasts, Tom Brady, and Amy Poehler. Sadly, this is the only remotely watchable clip from Tom’s lone SNL hosting gig in 2005.

http://www.liveleak.com/ll_embed?f=c7afcdc8a78d

2. Dancing

Peyton is also just more at ease with himself and his body than Tom. We can see this by how stupid Peyton’s helmet looks in comparison to Tom’s.

We can also see this when they both dance.

Again, from Peyton’s SNL episode:

Peyton might have had professional dancing instruction, since he was on SNL, which presumably employs professionals who can coach Peyton how to play Will Forte’s leg so expertly.

We should probably judge Peyton by his natural dancing ability, by what he brings when the music starts and he just feels it. 

Actually, they are remarkably similar. Peyton is a bad dancer, but he owns it, like a Dad intent on embarrassing his daughter while chaperoning her middle school dance.

Tom is bad, but it’s his lack of confidence that kills him. He’s confused about what to do with his hands. He has a “am I doing it right?” vibe.

3. Improvising

A good way to judge a professional athlete’s charisma and charm is to see what happens when the questions get weird and the athlete has to turn off the auto-pilot. Tom manages to skillfully take this super weird question, chuckle at it, and still make the cliché work.

Tom remains cordial and even compliments the weird 1920’s reporter guy for the question. That’s a nice piece of improvisation. But Peyton agrees to get interviewed by Will Ferrell in character as Ron Burgundy. He steps into the ring with an improv master, and he holds his own, even when Ron says he looks like a “succulent baby lamb.”

Okay, maybe it wasn’t all improvised.

4. Singing

Brady is on-key, like, most of the time here. I think he did just fine. JUST FINE.

Peyton’s performance here seems better until you remember that Brady was singing LIVE and that Manning probably had Katy Perry-level post production done on his voice to make it sound acceptable.

5. Modeling
This is no contest. Take away things like voice inflection, comedic timing, and natural delivery and make it all a looks contest and Peyton has no chance.

 

tom-brady-stetson-ads-05

 

vs.

peyton pizza

 

Tom modeled the shit out of that picture. Conversely, Papa John looks sexier than Peyton. It’s also worth noting that Peyton has Roger Goodell hair in this picture.

 

Conclusion:

Peyton is better, but only because he has much better weapons than Tom. (Amy Poehler’s SNL era DVOA was actually not that great).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Will Miss Being Totally Confused by Rajon Rondo

rondo

It’s not often that a professional athlete is branded with a SAT vocabulary word by the sports media, but wherever the name Rajon Rondo appears in print, it seems the word “mercurial” is sure to be nearby.

“Perhaps the most discouraging news to come out of Boston this summer regarding the often mercurial Rondo,…”

And if the Celtic star isn’t being described as mercurial, it’s probably because he’s being enigmatic.

“As the Celtics open the 2012-13 schedule Tuesday night in Miami against the title-defending Heat, the enigmatic Rondo — a fussy fashionista with a basketball assassin’s soul — reigns as their undisputed floor leader,…”

Both of these words can be useful, but when applied to Rondo they don’t illuminate him, or his relationship to the otherworldly basketball talents he possesses. They only obfuscate our understanding of him. When sportswriters first started using those words to describe Rondo they meant he was moody, tough to talk to, tough to interview certainly, but also clearly capable of giving thoughtful and funny answers (his assessment of his likelihood to play on opening night — 79% — and the 4% upgrade he gave himself today, along with his assertion that he will be a “nap time decision” are just the most recent examples). His game was similarly bipolar: his imagination on the floor was limitless, but his focus untrustworthy. Writers never knew which Rondo they would get when talking to him or watching him play. The assumption was that there were two Rondos: the brilliant technician leading the Celtics high-powered offense, and the other Rondo who emerged when his maturity faltered. This Rondo was all petulance, lazy defense and ill-advised passes.

Early on, it was assumed that the duality was connected to an immature moodiness that would dissipate with time. Those words so often used to describe him (mercurial, enigmatic, aloof) were placeholders; he was enigmatic only because we didn’t know him yet. He was mercurial because we didn’t understand him. Surely, winning a championship would allow us to know him. Becoming the Celtics’ best player as the big three grew old would force his personality and his game to calcify into something we could easily define. Maybe a knee injury and a blow to that aura of invincibility he wore so casually would force him to do away with the impatience that became palpable whenever a camera or microphone was directed his way. And then there was last year, when we thought that Rondo would surely let us know his true self as the unquestioned face of the franchise during a hopeless campaign. We were waiting for the easy narrative, for enough pieces to fall into place where we could properly pigeonhole Rondo, as both a person and a player. That has still not happened (nobody can even agree if he is a good shooter or not) and it’s pretty clear now that it never will.

Thank God.

Rondo is the weirdest, most mercurial, enigmatic, and inscrutable player in the NBA, which is a just a list of thesaurus words employed to say that we just don’t get him. Our greatest basketball players exist in a simple personality matrix: there’s the immature talent (Boogie Cousins), the former immature talent who grew up and “got it” (Kyle Lowry, Chris Webber, Paul Pierce), the quiet superstar (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan), the affable pitchman (Lebron James, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin), and the win-at-all costs sociopath (Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett). Where does Rondo fit into this? Couldn’t you make a case for just about every category, minus the affable pitchman? But then again, would it even be surprising if Rondo was in a series of hilarious Kia commercials? What can’t he do?

Apart from his statistics, and the fact that he’s fourth all-time in playoff triple doubles, here are some things we know about Rondo:

  1. He is a freak. From Lee Jenkins’ excellent 2013 SI profile: “Rondo’s hands, 9½ inches long and 10 inches wide, are the size of a 7-footer’s. His wingspan is 6’9”, common for a power forward. If built proportionally, he says, “I’d be like Magic or Oscar Robertson.” In peripheral vision tests Rondo beats everybody except Ainge, and on road trips he can recall exact directions to places he visited once. Ainge has seen him throw a football 80 yards, hit a softball 380 feet and beat 33-year-old assistant general manager Ryan McDonough in a 40-yard dash with a tire strapped to his waist. In college Rondo stole the ball from his man 16% of the time; no one else in the 2006 draft swiped it more than 5%.”
  2. He is a connect four savant. He challenges groups of children to simultaneous games of connect four and he beats them mercilessly.
  3. He never watched basketball growing up. He learned the game entirely through his own experience of it. His unique style, the chances he takes, the plays he makes that seem to have never been made before, much of that may come down to the fact that he was a basketball tabula rasa. He invented his game in a vacuum free of expectations of what the game is supposed to look like.
  4. He asks questions back at reporters more than any athlete I’ve ever seen. It’s often steely and cold, but it’s never hostile. He can give the most cliché sounding answers and make them seem natural and genuine, and he can give the most controversial answers and make them seem boring and cliché. He can be friendly and adversarial. His interviews are great in a subtle way. Watch how many interesting, yet very simple answers he gives in this three-minute interview.
  1. Speaking of interviews, he gave the greatest halftime interview of all time when he called out the Heat for crying to the refs. He wasn’t complaining about them doing it, he was simply answering a question about why the Celtics were able to get out and run. “Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition.” Rondo seems like he is at once deeply committed to the truth, and totally bored by it.
  2. He is best friends with Josh Smith. This can reasonably considered a red flag.
  3. He has been, according to this typically excellent Jackie MacMullan piece, the leader of the team for years. He was the guy who took the younger players under his wing, not just recently, but while KG and Paul were still in town. He forms deeply committed friendships with teammates.
  4. He once told a reporter that he had big plans for his post-basketball career, but refused to say what they were.
  5. He may or may not have clashed with Doc Rivers and Ray Allen.
  6. He takes five showers a day.
  7. He is an excellent roller skater. 
  8. He said he “felt nothing” when Paul and KG left.
  9. Nerlens Noel said Rondo was the “biggest helper” of any NBA player while dealing with his recovery from ACL surgery.
  10. He is smart. He drops in on high school math classes and ends up teaching them. Danny Ainge has said that Rondo is always “the smartest guy in the room, and the most stubborn.”
  11. He out rebounds his height (6’1) better than anybody since Charles Barkley.
  12. Danny Ainge has tried to trade him roughly 3,540 times.

What are we to make of all this? It’s 2014 and the mercurial and enigmatic Rondo® is still as unknowable as he was when he entered the league in 2006. Those adjectives are no longer placeholders, they are an admission of a comprehension failure. Writers have given up trying to understand Rondo or get to know him, not because he’s dull – he is anything but – and not because he only allows access to a customer-facing version of himself (I can’t imagine Rondo ever talking about his “brand”), but because Rondo is honest and yet still we can’t figure out what type of player or person he is. He refuses all attempts at explanation or narrative. He frustrates the manufacturing of simple career arcs that we have become accustomed to as sports fans. He is a series of parts, impressions, and facts that don’t seem to fit together. He is a mystery.

There will be no “knowing” Rondo. To just sort of flippantly refer to him as mercurial and enigmatic is understandable, and a time saver, but doing so is a disservice to the complexities of one of the most dynamic athletes and personalities I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. As the 2014-2015 season begins, Celtics fans know this is very likely Rondo’s last in Boston. I personally hope that the Celtics sign Rondo to a max deal, since no free agent is coming to Boston without an established star, and try to build around him. But whatever happens, we should appreciate him for his basketball genius and also his inscrutability; we should relish the fact that in this age of social media and advanced analytics a point guard leading a marquee franchise is still capable of being so joyfully confusing. We should enjoy every last one-handed cross-court pass, every altercation with the referees, every question turned back on a reporter. We should stay vigilant in order to celebrate the plays, and there will be a few, which Rondo is the first to ever complete, not because there has never been anyone with his talent, but because Rondo was the first to see through the limitations of physics and aesthetics and will a new basketball play into existence with his daring and stubbornness.

Rondo is totally unknowable. But that doesn’t make trying to know him any less fun, and it doesn’t make his inevitable departure any less sad. For the next few months, we should bang our heads against Rondo’s contradictions and be happy that someone so intelligent and so talented wouldn’t make it simple for us to love him. It will be a sad day when Rondo isn’t around to confuse us anymore.

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It’s hard to police violence when you’re profiting from it

In the past few weeks, the NFL has revised both its domestic violence and its banned substances policy, by, among other changes, increasing punishments for the former and decreasing them for the latter. There were significant problems with how the NFL handled each type of infraction, and there still are despite the new policies (see Hardy, Greg), but in general things are at least more aligned with how the larger society views the crimes in proportion to each other. Gone is the radically backwards belief formerly codified in the NFL bylaws that smoking pot is a worse crime than beating a woman.

This man married a Fox News anchor.

This man married a Fox News anchor.

The fact that it took two separate videos surrounding the Ray Rice incident to make this judicial inequity clear to both the NFL and their fans is unfortunate, sort of disgraceful, and a pretty clear indication that the NFL is reactive, instead of active, in its policies.

(It also made clear that the NFL and Roger Goodell don’t understand the nature of causation, i.e., what has to happen in an elevator ride to have it end with a man dragging an unconscious woman out of it, or what is inevitable when there is a second tape of the incident floating around and the staff at the place that has the video, which is worth lots of money, are getting laid off, or what happens when you leave reporters out to dry, or what happens when you constantly lie to the public and use incompetence as an excuse for moral failings. It ultimately made it clear to a great many people that Roger Goodell should be removed from his duties as Commissioner.)

What no one is really asking, however, is how did the NFL’s punishments for most crimes/infractions, including the “gates” (bounty and spy), drunk driving, banned substances, and performance enhancing drugs, become so thoroughly enforced while domestic violence had no such punishment prescribed or implemented until recently? I think a pretty simple explanation is that the NFL isn’t a law enforcement entity (although that seems to change depending on Roger Goodell’s mood), and that crimes committed off the field, or have no direct impact on the game itself, should be handled by the law, which 99% of the time doesn’t give people charged with crimes like Ray Rice committed the deal that Ray Rice got.

One could argue that the NFL can and should let crimes committed off the field be handled by law enforcement authorities, and that only in the case of direct impact to the game, or its integrity, should the NFL be suspending people. The NFL’s earliest suspensions were all for gambling or fixing games, which makes sense, given that those are crimes that mean far different things to law enforcement than they do to the NFL, since gambling or fixing games would destroy the league’s validity.

According to Fivethirtyeight.com and my counting of the suspensions they compiled, there were six suspensions by the league office between the formation of the NFL in 1920 and when the league began drug testing in 1987. There were an additional 34 suspensions from 2000 to the start of the 2006 season when Roger Goodell replaced Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. Of those 34 suspensions, twenty were for PEDs, seven were for substance abuse, and the remaining seven were for personal conduct violations and in-game incidents. This makes sense, as PED use poses a threat to the integrity of the sport, much as gambling did in a previous era. Since Goodell took over in 2006, there have been, by my count, 192 suspensions (!). Now there could be a lot of reasons for this, one is more sophisticated drug testing, one is the fact that players are using more PEDs, and another might be that with more money than ever, the players are just out of control. Or maybe nothing has changed, and Goodell is simply reacting to the fact that crimes that used to be easily forgotten now quickly grab national headlines due to the new media landscape, which has forced him to react to just about everything.

Roger Goodell has made himself the league’s enforcer and protector of the shield, and in doing so has put himself in a position to be questioned for his punishments, or lack thereof. Before he started with his crusade to clean up the game, nobody would consider it his job to create and implement domestic violence policies, and nobody would have started evaluating how ad-hoc and inconsistent his system of justice was. But Roger Goodell bullrushed his way into the land of behavior regulation (the newest example being the type of “inappropriate language” penalty that Colin Kaepernick was hit with on Sunday), and the league didn’t seem to stop and consider that fact that an asserted right to penalize anybody for anything means that systems of justice have to be established. Once the precedent has been set that all behavior is punishable by the league, omissions or weak penalties for certain acts are now unforgivable. There is no longer an excuse to make that any crime is outside of the jurisdiction of the NFL.

Of course they were going to miss some sort of infraction, and of course it was domestic violence, which is no surprise because the NFL is a man’s league, a man’s league predicated on violence. (Breast Cancer Awareness month, the NFL’s transparently cynical PR push to remind it’s viewers of a disease everybody is well aware of, is going to be particularly awkward this year).

Maybe the crime here isn’t that the NFL has adjudicated poorly, maybe the problem is that a sports league that profits off violence and broken brains thinks it can adjudicate behavior at all. And when it does, is it any surprise that its judgment about the relative severity of crimes isn’t going to be in alignment with the rest of society’s, which outside of a few isolated areas, discourages violence and has more or less accepted marijuana use?

The NFL treats its players, who have the shortest shelf life of any professional athlete and who must sacrifice their individuality more than any major team sport participant, as automatons whose function is violence. These can be replaced when their CPUs breaks down, which they most likely will, because there are no guaranteed contracts. If you pay people money to commit violence in a regimented, team first environment, then anything that asserts or displays individuality, smoking pot, taking a public political stance, non-normative sexual orientation, are all distractions. They create individuation that disrupts the uniformity of team. In the business of violence, violence committed off the field or misdirected is unwanted, sure, but it’s not a fundamental rejection of the NFL’s programming. It’s a slight malfunction. It’s the kind of aggressive play that results in a personal foul penalty, the kind coaches can live with because they’d rather have their players living on the edge of chaos then be afraid to approach it.

I’m not saying this is a conscious decision by the NFL, or that the owners, coaches, players, or staff of the NFL don’t sincerely care about stopping violence against women. And clearly the NFL is trying to figure out just what amount of violence is appropriate, and how the game can be made safer. But like any organization, the more power the NFL gives itself, the more power it craves. The more the NFL decides that its job is to police personal conduct, they more they are going to be faced with their own contradictions. This is made worse by the fact that up until recently, Roger Goodell was the source of appeal for Roger Goodell’s decisions.

The NFL screwed up the Ray Rice incident badly. But what the incident made clear is that the NFL under Roger Goodell has created a haphazard system of justice that lays in the hands of one man, and operates according to a set of values that is out of touch with the values of its audience. It was only a matter of time before a Ray Rice came along to show us that.

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You Can’t Teach Height. But You Can Move to Asia.

This is my favorite Basketball hoop in the Philippines. I took this while traveling to a volcano.

Red Auerbach once said, supposedly, “you can’t teach height.” He was right. Height is a genetic roll of the dice, and it can’t be practiced or learned in a gym, which is a shame because it really might be the most important attribute for any basketball player, or man running for office, seeking a job, or looking to attract a women. Once you’re fully grown, which for me was when I became 5’10 at fourteen years old, you simply must except that the growth plate is closed and that there is no more trading in your cards for taller ones. You have your hand and you must play it.
I have always been a person of average height on the street. On the basketball court, I was always a point guard, and not a particularly fast or agile one at that.  I had accepted this.

But then I moved to Manila. In the Philippines I am tall. Height, it turns out, is relative.

I am not a giant here. I do not have strangers coming up to me to find their significant others in crowds, nor have I gained an affinity for the blood of Englishmen. I am a tall person, as in, I am of above average height. This may seem like a minor, inconsequential thing, the kind of thing that can be obtained in small doses during afternoon strolls through Chinatown. I assure you it is not. Being a tall person for a prolonged period of time is different. I feel more confident in day to day situations. Even though I am a white person and a foreigner who sticks out in crowds and is an obvious target for thieves, I am sure I could defend myself against any attack by putting out my arm and holding my attacker’s head at arm’s length while they swung their fists wildly, unable to strike me.

Sometimes I reach up to touch signs and flyers posted high on walls, just to see if anyone is impressed.

Nowhere has my new found height changed my life more than on the basketball court. It should be noted that Filipinos love basketball. NBA TV is on every screen at every bar. Being a tall person in a place that loves basketball, and not one in one of those stupid countries that view height as something that comes in handy during headers, is to be tall in a place that properly respects the virtue of vertical length. This is a place where height is appreciated and celebrated.

As somebody who has always been a point guard and relied on bigger, taller people to do things like grab rebounds and put me on their shoulders so I could dunk, I was overcome with joy when I arrived on the court for my first pickup basketball game as a tall person. I was not the tallest person there, but I was taller than most. I was no longer a guard. I was a forward, a power forward even. Never have I been so invigorated by the name of a sports position. I felt powerful. And like sharks and stock cars, I would only be moving forward.

This court was indoor, hardwood, and real long, with an NBA three point line. I was ready to get the ball on the block and go to work with my arsenal of post moves. Like a black belt who can kill a man with one punch but has never been in a fight, I had been slowly developing my post moves over the years in case I ever needed them. The Josh Keefe-Kevin McHale up and under was ready to be unveiled to the world. Or so I thought.

When I got on the court I was told I’d play the back middle. Excuse me?

“We play a zone,” I was told.

A zone. Both teams played a zone. Every game was played with zone defense. This was because playing a zone saved energy when playing full court in the jersey-soaking humidity.

The thing about playing against a zone is that there are no one-on-one matchups, and you can’t really post up as you would in a man-to-man situation. You can’t take your man down to the block and enroll him in up and under school. Playing a zone also comes with responsibilities on defense. As a newly tall person, I was still not sure about playing the back middle of a 2-3 zone and protecting the rim. That was always a tall person’s job. Like a newly orphaned child with shorter younger brothers and sisters, I would have to step up.

I made it through the first game. The newly tall tend to forget they are tall and drift out to the three point line. I made this mistake a few times, forgetting that I must put my short days behind me and embrace this new world known as the paint, even though the zoning board had closed up and under school until further notice, so I had to rely on cutting through the lane on offense, much as a short person might. I was suddenly filled with sympathy for Josh Smith. When you are a tall person, the perimeter is not a lonely place far from the action like it is when you are short. It’s the edge. It’s rock and roll and sexy. It’s where the innovation happens. It’s the Silicon Valley to the paint’s industrial heartland.

Still, I scored a little inside. I grabbed some rebounds. I made outlet passes. It didn’t keep me from hating the zone. I wanted to have my first block party.

We won and our opponents for the second game wandered on the court. There was a giant among them, a 6’5 Filipino, who was not just tall, but wide. He was a beast. I saw him and was glad that I wouldn’t have to guard him, since I was a guard–

Oh my god. I am a tall person. I’m the one who has to play the back of the zone. I have to guard the giant.

I guarded him as a fly guards the tail of an elephant. I annoyed him when I was able make him remember I was there.

He got the ball outside of the paint and backed me down effortlessly. He grabbed every rebound. He would miss, and get the ball back, and miss, and get the ball back, and miss, and it wouldn’t matter because nobody could stop him from trying over and over until he made it, like we were parents and worried about his self-esteem.

As a newly tall person, I still remembered what it was like to be a short person. And seeing someone hold the ball high above my head and out of reach, finding my face in another man’s armpit, jumping up and down over and over for rebounds like a child futilely trying to reach the cookies on the shelf, all of this seemed like a short person’s experience.

But I wasn’t a short person anymore.

Being a tall person means nobody is too tall for you to guard. With great height comes great responsibility. And that responsibility extends beyond replacing the smoke alarm batteries. It means having to stay home from school and cancel the block party when monsters arrive on the basketball court.

Thank you Manila, for reminding me I’ll never be tall enough. Thank you for reminding me that true height lies within. In the bone structure.

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