Friday, April 30, 2010

Quick Takes - The Shape Ups invasion


Did you know that Joe Montana made $80 million last year?

$80 million. Joe Montana. Who retired from the NFL in 1994. 16 years after his NFL playing career ended, Joe Montana made $80 million. Doesn't that seem suspicious to you? It seemed suspicious to me, until I realized what Joe Montana wears on his feet.

Skechers Shape Ups.

Yes, the shoes. I've watched the Skechers commercials with hand-clapping glee for a long time, I've researched the product, trying to understand if these supposed "health benefits" are true or if it's just some evil plan to get people to wear goofy shoes in public. Apparently Dr. Horrible's moved on from the Freeze Ray. But the more I researched the Shape Ups, the more my brain started to sway, I felt close to the Shape Ups, connected to the Shape Ups, I heard them talk to me, the sole of the shoe flapping free from the top ...

"Erik ... join us ... join the collective."

Skechers Shape Ups come from a distant planet of oddly-shaped foot creatures. Their planet was destroyed and the Shape Ups, the only remnants of their once-great foot society, traveled millions of light years, lost, alone, looking for a new host planet to infest, before crash landing on Earth many years ago. Government researchers tested the shoe mullets in a private lab under the Liberty Bell, blowing them up, melting them, carbon dating them, even putting them on and walking over the fake terrain they have at REI.

Suddenly, the researchers felt different, they felt ... alive. They could hear each other's thoughts, communicating through the shoes. The hive mind was reborn. They infiltrated Skechers, a shoe company that made things you bought in high school, using catchy marketing and "doctor recommendations" to begin their quest to take over the world, and then, ultimately, Joe Montana. He put them on as a joke one time for his kids, never realizing that his life was going to change forever. They chose him, for his popularity, for his influence, and, mostly, for his great hair.

Joe Montana was going to be the Shape Ups hive queen.

Yes, Joe Montana made $80 million last year, and yes, his back feels great, his abdominals are being flexed as he walks, his buttocks are firm, and his blood circulation is in tip-top shape, but it came with a price. Oh yes, Joe Montana, it came with a price. You may have your millions of dollars and your hilarious TV commercial, and through the power of the Shape Ups hive you grow stronger every day, but you are forever linked with the Shape Ups, you are forever their champion, and only when you die, if they even let you, will you be free from the grasp of the Shape Ups collective.

Pam, from Massachusetts, a former freethinker who sadly fell under the alien shoespell, left a testimonial on the Skechers Shape Ups Web site.

"They are so nice to walk in and in fact really inspire you to walk by the way they propel you ... they're very supportive and made really well ... I don't know how I ever lived without them!"

Nor they you, Pam.

Nor they you.

What Pam doesn't (and can't) report on the Web site is that she can't bring herself to take the shoes off. Look, they support her, they inspire her, she can't live without them. They are Mother. I've never seen someone who owns a pair of Skechers Shape Ups NOT wearing them. That's because they fuse to the bones of the foot, twist up the fibula and connect to the base of the spinal cord. The Shape Ups are physically holding people like Pam's posture upright, yet another blessing/curse of the shoe sensation.

My only question is who's next? Will it be LeBron James who fortuitously laces up a pair of Shape Ups? Maybe he'll finally win a championship wearing them, but, like Montana, will live out the rest of his days a cold, empty husk, a meal for a hungry parasite. Will Alex Rodriguez, in yet another money-hungry move, slip into a warm pair of form-fitting Shape Ups for an advertising gig and fall victim to the power of Joe Montana's feet?

It may already be too late.
  • As if LeBron James couldn't fall deeper into the catacombs of hatred ... wait, let me brand that, The Catacombs of Hatred (I smell a column) ... he shoots a left-handed free throw in a four-point playoff game because he bonked his elbow three weeks ago. Listen, LeBrizzle, I know you think you're hot shit, I know you've bought into your own hype, I know you hear people say you're the best ever even though you've never won a championship and you believe it, but you crossed the line against the Bulls. You tossed your warm-ups to the floor as a Bulls warm-up kid waited with arms extended to collect them. Classy as always. When Derrick Rose (baller) jumped into you and you "injured" your elbow, you immediately grabbed your face like Lee Harvey Oswald opened fire from the upper deck, quickly realized the refs didn't buy it and grabbed your elbow instead. And finally, you shot a left-handed free throw in a FOUR POINT PLAYOFF GAME. Why? Because you wanted a Jordan Moment. You wanted the eyes-closed free throw a la mode. You wanted even more attention than ESPN gives you. You're the neediest, most self-serving whore of an NBA player the league has ever known and that's going to come back to bite you for the rest of your career. LeBron's total number of championships: Zero.
  • This is like selfish week in Quick Takes. Up next on our show is Cristiano Ronaldo, midfielder for Real Madrid and the most expensive footballer in the world. Crissy, as he's known in my house, left Manchester United for greener ($$$) pastures last year, joining Madrid in the richest transfer and wage deal in the history of football. Just ONE YEAR into his Madrid career, Crissy's already looking ahead. "I spent several years wanting to play in Madrid but I don't see myself here at 40. Football is all about cycles - if you have already won everything with a team you have to change." No! Wrong! Football is about loyalty! It's about sustained success for the city and fans that devote so much of their time and money to YOU. Not according to Crissy Ronaldo, who thinks wherever the next big paycheck is where he should be, which ultimately means one thing: The L.A. Galaxy! Paris Hilton, bust out the Hypnotiq and dust off your vagina, Crissy Ronaldo's coming to town soon.
  • The Raiders are reportedly going to cut JaMarcus Russell! If Japan ever starts a professional football league, a) that'd be incredible to watch and b) JaMarcus Russell has to join the league and go all Ochocinco on us and put "Godzilla" on the back of his jersey.
  • Back to the Japanese Football League (JFL), I think I'm really onto something here. The Japanese do everything better! Step one, put everyone in skin-tight leotards. Step two, surround the field with razor wire. Step three, giant mascots that wander onto the field and can be used in game situations once per quarter. Step four, octopi. Step five, more octopi. Step six, make the ball explode at random moments throughout the game. I could probably do this for another hour ...
  • What questions should be off limits? That's the raging debate in the NFL right now after Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland asked draft prospect Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. Personally, I think it's a valid question. A general manager, especially in South Beach, should be worried about his players' access to paid sex. What's the team going to be focused on with a hooker amidst its ranks, football or sex? My guess is sex. Or, potentially, sex-football if those can somehow come together (lord knows I've tried). But why stop there, Ireland? Other potential questions John Ireland could have asked Dez Bryant: When you see the color red, does it make you think of that guy you killed? Are you sure you didn't kill anybody?  If you were to kill a guy, how would you do it? Is your mother, by any chance, a hooker? ... Wow, even next to murder allegations that hooker question looks out of place.
  • Let's explore this deeper. Maybe Jeff Ireland is having marital issues at home and "fancied" Dez Bryant's mom. I think we really need to look into the context of the question: Did he say, "Dez, this is going to directly impact our decision to draft you, we live in Miami, our players are always distracted by the nightlife here, and having a prostitute in the locker room might send the wrong message ... so ... is your mom a prostitute?" ... OR ... did he say, "Dez, your mom, she's, uh, she's quite a looker, she wouldn't happen to, now don't get offended by this, okay? She wouldn't happen to ... accept money for sexual ... yeah, you know what, nevermind ... just forget it. How much did you say you can bench?" Context is key, people!
  • I think Phil Jackson is trying to Jedi mind-trick the entire NBA.
  • Prediction: Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Kenyon Martin will rob a bank by the year 2030.
  • There are 103 early entries into the NBA Draft this year. There are only 60 total picks available in each draft. If they couldn't do the basic math to understand why they probably won't get drafted, they certainly weren't going to graduate anyway.
  • Santonio Holmes refused to turn off his iPod as his plane prepared to land on Friday. I like Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" as much as the next guy, but when a flight attendant tells me to put my clothes back on and turn off the jams, I do it, okay?
  • Milton Bradley is brainwashing me into loving him. I knew this was going to happen. After forcing a bases-loaded walk to drive in the go-ahead run against the Kansas City Royals this week, the Mariners outfielder did a Barry Bonds-esque bat flip like he'd just hit a 700-foot homerun. As Milton jogged down to first base, Royals manager Trey Hillman yelled, "Save it, buddy!" Trey, it's Milton Effing Bradley (new nickname, done and done), he's bulletproof. If he wants to do a bat flip after a walk, let him do a bat flip after a walk. If he wants to say the team won because of his "eagle eyes" in the postgame press conference, just nod and smile (that actually happened). If MEB wants to sit down in left field and bake cookies in an Easy-Bake Oven he smuggled in his pants, let him go, man. Just let him go. He's a grizzly bear ... don't be a salmon.
 Until next time, Duck Dodgers.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Quick Takes - Daredevil duck depression



I dedicate this to one woebegotten duck, scientific name anas platyrhynchos, may you rest in peace.

I had an incident Saturday afternoon, driving home after a lovely lunch at McDonald's. I should've known the day was going to go wrong when some small woman in the McDonald's line got in an argument with me about whether or not the teller was ready to take my order or not yet. I contended she wasn't ready to take my order, as she hadn't given me the "Okay, now I'm ready" eyes, but the woman disagreed, telling me to "Just step up, she'll take your order once you step up."

"Listen lady," I said, "I'll step up when she's ready."

I shot her a backthef***off look.

The teller finally gave me the eyes, I sarcastically looked over my shoulder at the woman, who tried to avoid eye contact, but I totally tractor beamed her, before stepping up and ordering.

I often think about "What ifs?" ... What if our pizza cutter hadn't broken last week? What if we hadn't gone to lunch at all? What if we didn't decide to stop and pick up a new pizza cutter on the way home from lunch?

Then maybe that family of ducks would still be alive.

I pulled off the freeway toward the pizza cutter store, and up ahead I saw about 15 ducklings on the shoulder of the road, just beneath an overpass. One of the little guys clearly didn't make it, all of his brothers and sisters were crowded around him. It was strangely human. I'm looking at the ducklings, trying to make sure I can maneuver out of the way if they happened to wander into the street, but it was a one-way street, manuevering was going to be minimal. Out of nowhere, from the overpass I was just about to pass under, a duck dive-bombs my windshield, bounces off like a kid in a blow-up castle, and clatters to the pavement behind my car.

"WHAT THE F***!" I screamed.

I tried to stop, but it was a freeway exit, there were other cars coming. I reached a stoplight up ahead and looked in my rear-view mirror, hoping to see the daredevil duck dust itself off and go tend to the ducklings. But it was upside down. My wife, sensitive as always, described in detail what it looked like, before I yelled, "Oh my god, STOP!"

She tried not to laugh, unsuccessfully. Told you, sensitive as always.

We went to the pizza cutter store, the whole time I'm searching for local animal shelters on my phone wondering aloud "WHY DO PEOPLE ONLY RESCUE DOGS?! WHAT ABOUT THE DUCKS DAMMIT! WHAT ABOUT THE DUCKS?!"

I was quietly ushered out of the pizza cutter store.

I went home, thinking about that duck family, torn to shreds over what my two-ton car and I had just done ... fowl murder. But then, a glimmer of light, I did what everyone struggling with grief does:

I made up an awesome story to make myself feel better!

Why were those ducklings alone in the street? Because that duck mother was a whore. Yup, she was a whore. She had 15 ducklings from 10 different mallards, sleeping around town, trying to get her fix, snorting car exhaust wherever she could. She was a terrible mother, high out of her mind from some oil slick she'd found nearby, not realizing her babies were wandering off. And then, when she finally did realize her babies, who she thought were little edible crackers, were missing, she jumped off the overpass without looking or using her wings. She was so damn hungry!

But just when things looked dire, just when it looked like not only one life would be lost that day, but 14 others, a great duck mother came and found the orphaned ducklings, took them under her wing (yeah, I went there), and raised them in a loving home with her longtime mallard partner, Rory, who was a carpenter and liked to garden in his free time.

Whew, I feel better. In any case, the official mascot of Quick Takes (Quack Takes? No ...) from henceforth shall be the majestic duck. May your wings never tire and your feathers remain waterproof. Amen.
  • JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders quarterback and headlining member of my Fat Action Squad, now reportedly weighs over 300 pounds. I wonder if the Raiders are going to draw up plays where he's his own blocker?
  • Tim Tebow jersey sales broke the all-time draft weekend record this past weekend, previously held by Jets QB Mark Sanchez. It just goes to show, Christians will buy anything with the lord's name on it.
  • Baseball attendance is starting to reach the "oh shit" level already. Obviously Bud Selig has no idea, he's stuck in an iron lung at the moment getting his breathe on, but I watched a Mariners game recently where the all-time lowest attendance record at Safeco Field was set, just 1/16th into the season. It felt like a birthday party for a kid everyone hates. Sure, there were a few pity shows, but most people thought, "Meh, I'd rather stay home and play video games. I hate that kid. I'll just tell him I was sick on Monday." Why is attendance so poor in Major League Baseball? Because fans are smarter than the people running the league. The season is too long, the games are too long, and the product has become diluted by fat, lazy players who play their way into shape. Jillian Michaels should run Major League Baseball ... I think C.C. Sabathia would retreat into the ocean to rejoin his colony if that were to happen.
  • Is Kelly Kapoor running the Philadelphia Phillies front office? Kelly, you didn't have to give Ryan Howard $125 million to get back together, just tell him you're pregnant again.
  • Also, it's hard to type Philadelphia Phillies and then NOT type "phront" and "ophice."
  • Prostitution is legal in France, did you know that? Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, two French national football players, did. What they forgot is that while prostitution may be legal, having underage sex is not. Whoops! Should there be a hooker clause added to the underage sex law? Should we consult Ben Roethlisberger?
  • I spent three hours watching Dateline NBC's "To Catch A Predator" the other night because UW Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas told me to. What can I say? I'm impressionable, as are the young, nubile decoys the show employs to catch said predators.
  • LeGarrette Blount looks like he might be a Quick Takes mainstay after just two articles! After going undrafted this past weekend at Radio City Music Hall, Blount had made verbal commitments to sign with the 49ers, only to ditch them hours later and join the Tennessee Titans. While he may struggle with football at times, LeGarrette Blount clearly still knows how to throw a sucker-punch.
  • Lady Gaga wants tickets to Team Voldemort's next playoff game against the Lakers? If there was ever a building in the world I wanted to burn down with my brain ...
Submit your questions (sports and non-sports) and be in the next Q&A!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The triumphant return of QUICK TAKES



If you are easily offended, turn away. If you don't like your favorite teams and players being mocked incessantly, cover your eyes (it'll be hard to keep reading if you cover your eyes though, just FYI). If you want cupcake journalism, stories about puppies and kitties and how cute they are, well, there might be some of that, but NOT MUCH DAMMIT.

For five years I wrote a column called Quick Takes, covering national sports with as much satire and attitude as my editors would allow (a.k.a very little). It was because of Quick Takes that I nearly got expelled from Loyola University Chicago ... twice. I received countless voicemails, letters, and e-mails from people who were mad at Quick Takes, all of which I glowingly printed in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the newspaper because, just as I saw the newspaper as a forum for my sometimes-awkward conversations, I thought everyone else deserved just as much of that forum as I did. I thought I was a rebel, like fuckin Che Guevara. I took nude pictures of myself holding machine guns I made out of cardboard. Badass.

And then, after the NCAA Tournament this year, some of my closest friends destroyed that rebel. I wrote an article called "What could have been ..." about Butler forward Gordon Hayward's final three-point heave at the buzzer against Duke. About how monumental that shot could have been. Life changing even. But my friends? They called me Rick Reilly. FUDGEEEEE. Rick Reilly? Seriously? The corniest, sweater-vestiest writer in sports? I felt like Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back," "Nooo! That's impossible!"

Ironically, that's the same thing I said after George Lucas released Episodes I through III.

But was it impossible? I'm not the same person I was years ago. I'm not passing out on the el in Chicago with a bag full of uneaten Taco Bell in my lap. I don't lose my shoes anymore when I drink. I'm married now, I'm living in a coffee-drinking, wine-tasting, beautiful town with people who wear socks and sandals year round. I'm having to confront far more of life than I ever thought I would. Finances, business decisions, kids, puppies (see, told you there might be some puppy talk). Has my writing mirrored my life? Has my pen been growing up too?

That's the first grey hair. The wake up call. Without friends who are willing to tell you you're writing like a 52-year-old man who thinks EVERYTHING is adorable and wears replica John Daly pants to bed, you let yourself go. And like all great, sexy men before me, I'm going to Walgreen's and getting some Just For Men Gel. I don't mind growing up, but I refuse to let my writing do the same.
  • I want to talk about volcanoes. Specifically, Eyjafjallaj√∂kull. Before we start, yes, I can pronounce it and my wife owes me a dollar for ever challenging me on Scandinavian pronunciations. I'm a direct descendant of Norwegian king Haakon V and his predecessors. I bought an English-to-Norwegian dictionary for light reading. Seriously, you owe me a freaking dollar. Pay up. But all throughout Europe, football players have been bitching left and right, in the wake of the volcanic ash plume that grounded flights across Europe, about how land travel sucked the energy out of them and that's why they lost. Barcelona used the volcano, Fulham used the volcano, Liverpool used the volcano. I have a sneaking suspicion that professional football players weren't piling into a Greyhound bus with a bunch of sight-seeing fat people. "Look honey, it's Lionel Messi! ... I'm starving, let's eat him. But first, take a picture of that illegible road sign."
  • If I ever make enough money to buy a thoroughbred racehorse, and that is my ultimate dream in life, I'm going to name it Eyjafjallaj√∂kull. I would pay money to hear a play-by-play guy call that race.
  • Alternative solution: Buy a dog and name him that. For only $100 I can torture my wife for years. Priceless.
  • Tim Tebow's entourage on NFL Draft night looked just like cast members from "Jersey Shore." I wonder what the Jesus version of that show would be like though. Same basic framework -- copycat haircuts, tight shirts, questionable morals -- but what's the twist? Everyone chugging communion wine in the rectory before hitting on girls at youth group. Nailed it.
  • Kids? The biggest lesson learned from Ben Roethlisberger's suspension: If you sexually assault a minor, you won't get to come to work for 4-6 weeks.
  • Kids? The biggest lesson learned from Ben Roethlisberger's bodyguard: If you let Ben Roethlisberger sexually assault a minor, you might not get to be a cop anymore. Aw, frowny-face!
  • Former Oregon RB and internationally-acclaimed Ryu impersonator LeGarrette Blount went undrafted through all seven rounds of the NFL Draft. He's proved once and for all that if you punch a guy in the face and Hulk out on a bunch of police on live TV, you're going to have a hard time getting a job. That's why I'll never sign the waiver from those "COPS" producers. What my employers don't know won't hurt them.
  • When the Mariners signed Milton Bradley, I have to admit I was excited. I wanted swear-laden press conferences, broken cameras, and a Tie Domi-inspired fan appreciation day with Milton climbing the outfield wall into the stands and throwing punches at unsuspecting Japanese tourists. But outside of a middle-fingered salute to Texas Rangers fans earlier this year, Milton's been all smiles. There's a conspiracy here. You don't take someone as volatile as Milton Bradley and churn out a Teletubby unless there's serious medicine involved. Instead of riling up the dragon after he flipped off an entire stadium, the Mariners brass sat down with him and asked him about his day, told him he didn't need to put so much pressure on himself, gave him some milk and cookies and read him "Goodnight, Moon" in bed that same night. And when Milton does something stupid, like trying to barehand a sliced ball in the outfield with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, the Seattle sports media asks him hardball questions like, "Hey Milton, how does it feel to be so awesome?" I get it, everyone's trying to coddle the grizzly bear so he doesn't bite someone's face off. But why do you think those shows about animal attacks on TruTV are so popular? People love animal attacks.
  • Apparently Manu Ginobili broke his nose in game three of the Spurs-Mavs series. How in the world did anyone even notice?
  • I don't like LeBron James, but I'm starting to realize that my distaste for LeBron, aside from his dancing idiocy and self-appointed kingship, has something to do with what I'm calling the Tebow Corrolary. Just like Tebow became enemy #1 in America because of incessant media coverage, LeBron is covered here like he drove Princess Diana's getaway car. Mark Jackson, former NBA point guard and current "analyst," (I put quotes around the word analyst because that implies he or any of the other ESPN "analysts" actually, you know, analyze the game) said on a recent telecast that "LeBron getting to the Finals with that Cavs team in '07 was as good as winning a championship in my eyes." Um, what?! Are we seriously to the point with LeBron now that his most glaring deficiency is being gifted to him like an honorary college degree? We know you didn't go to college, LeBron, but here's an honorary doctorate from Harvard, we think you can be the one to cure cancer.
  • Sometimes I think a bunch of NBA players are actually in gangs and fund a lot of the gang operations with their multi-million dollar contracts, buying guns, drugs, cars, and the obligatory bling to sustain the system. And then I see Robert Swift and change my mind.
  • Do you ever forget to eat lunch? Terrance Cody doesn't.
  • Statistics have become a huge part of the NBA. I love sports statistics, I scour through box scores and routinely take my own notes on games, writing down pass length, pass directionality, positional effectiveness, etc. while I'm watching sports. I always want to understand the difference between positive and negative decisions. That's precisely why I want to talk to Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich about statistics. If a 25-foot shot is worth three points, and a 23-foot shot is worth two points, and, statistically, you have the same percentage of success on both shots, wouldn't it make sense to shoot the 25-foot shot and have the opportunity to get an additional point for every shot you take? Kirk Hinrich doesn't think so, routinely pump-faking a three and stepping in to shoot a long two-pointer. Kirk, that's not effective offense, it's bad offense, and it's really starting to make a lot more sense that you're from Iowa.
  • I hope Chelsea defender John Terry's body produces a new species of mite or louse before the World Cup and he has to play in a HazMat suit throughout the tournament. But much like the intrepid Bob Marley, I fear we won't know the full extent of the fauna living in his forest until after he dies.

Until next time!

Monday, April 5, 2010

What could have been ...


It's 15 years from now.

My son's 13 years old, we always go outside to play basketball in the driveway on a hoop I installed myself. It was the first time I'd ever poured concrete. What a mess.

But today was different.

It was raining, right after the National Championship game, two teams we didn't care about played each other. We watched anyway. I gave him the look and, without words, he ran upstairs, put on some shorts and a hoodie and met me outside.

We usually talk about all sorts of things. Baseball, school, any boyfriends his sister has that I haven't met yet. Today, we played in silence for the first half hour. He was deep in thought, and who was I to ruin that? Kids need to be deep in thought more often. That's why we go outside and play basketball, so he can lose himself in the rhythmic bounce and swish of the ball.

He broke the silence first.

"Dad?" he asked.

"Gimme my change!" I clap my hands.

"In a second!"

We exchange another look. Go on, I say with a smirk.

"What's the greatest thing you've ever seen?"

"Besides you being born?"

"Sick!" he squirms.

"The greatest thing I've ever seen ... that's a tough question ..."

It wasn't really a tough question, but dammit, he's 13, he's too young to hear about all the kickass stuff I've seen. Gotta' earn your stripes, son.

"In sports, Dad ... what's the greatest thing you've ever seen in sports."

Ahhhh, now we're onto something. The greatest thing I've ever seen in sports. I've been a sports writer since I was his age. I wrote in junior high, high school, won national awards as a columnist in college and joined the Chicago Tribune right out of school. I've seen a lot of things, heard a lot of things, but what's the greatest?

"Well, one time, I went to the new 'American Gladiators' tryouts in Chicago, it was really amazing, I met all these people, all these people who were deeply hurt inside because they hadn't accomplished something special to them, who were there to prove to themselves, to everyone who'd ever hurt them, that they were wrong," he passed me the ball, obviously losing interest.

"Okay, okay, that wasn't the greatest thing I've ever seen," he was already a curmudgeon like his father. I felt sorry for my wife.

"Djibril Cisse's haircut?" I sarcastically suggested as I clanged one off the back iron.

"Who?"

"Nevermind."

He dribbled between his legs a few times, trying not to look down at the ball as he sped up his dribble. I was proud of him.

"Come on, Dad!"

I ran through the Dewey-decimal system in my brain, remembering back to the Randy Johnson strikeout in 1995 to send the Seattle Mariners into the playoffs. I remembered being in the Kingdome when Ken Griffey, Jr. hit a game-winning home run in the 13th inning. I remembered Arsenal's Invincibles, going an entire Premier League season without losing a game.

Swish.

He had a perfect jumper. I'd coached him well. I was still holding out hope he'd play soccer though. Not a lot of Norwegian NBA players, I tried to remind him. He'd bitch and moan when I'd wake him up early to watch Arsenal matches with me, but usually turned around once we swung by McDonald's and headed to the soccer field right after for some shooting practice. Put your boot through the ball! Beautiful!

The catalogue stopped.

"All right, I got it," I said to him, his head turning  sideways a bit to listen better. "When I was 25, you hadn't been born yet, but your mom and I had just been married a few months earlier. The NCAA Tournament that year was crazy, only 65 teams!" he guffawed with an inaudible yeah right, Dad.

"I can still picture that championship game. Duke against Butler. Goliath against David's little sister Wendy. Nobody thought Butler could win the game, they'd gone 11 minutes the game before without making a field goal and still ended up winning to make it to the final."

Swish.

"Butler fought so hard, son, I wish you could've seen it-"

He cut me off, "I can just go download it right now ..."

"I mean seen it live!"

The disconnect was apparent.

"Butler had no business being in that game, they had no business staying close to Duke, but they played like their lives depended on it, like they owed it to the entire sports world, sick of Goliath always winning, to do something spectacular on the biggest stage."

He passed me the ball, just wanting to listen.

I took a jumper from my spot. I always smoked him in HORSE with that spot.

"They got the ball back with 3.4 seconds left, down two points, I was standing on the bed-"

He cut me off again, "Why were you standing on the bed?"

"Because ... shut up ... I was standing on the bed and they looked like they'd blown it. They were down one with the ball 10 seconds earlier, but a missed shot, right off the back iron, gave the ball back to Duke. But the guy missed the second free throw, Butler got the ball, this guy with a mustache flatlined a Duke player on a screen and opened up, what was his name ... Hayward, that's right ... Hayward grabbed the rebound, sprinted up the court and launched a shot from halfcourt as the buzzer sounded."

"Well?" he said excitedly, "What happened?"

"He hit it, son ... he hit it. Butler won, 62-61. I still remember the score to this day. 62-61."

My voice trailed off a bit as I took a shot.

My son grabbed the rebound and ran as far away from the hoop as he could go.

"From here?"

"Further," I said, a smile on my face.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Arsenal Machine


Football is a beautiful game, rooted in history, ingrained in the lives and communities of the fans who watch the game. Brazilian kids dream of becoming the next Pele, English boys swoop their hair into Beckham-esque faux-hawks and swing tasty crosses into the box. No team plays the beautiful game better than Barcelona, the Catalan giants that stormed through La Liga and the Champions League last year.

This year, my beloved Arsenal, the former proprietors of the beautiful game, drew Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. After years of blessed draws, and years of talent recession within the club, Arsenal's luck finally ran out.

We drew the defending champions, the expected champions, the best team in the world.

The game itself, played Wednesday night in London at the Emirates, harked back to the great boxing matches of the 1970s and 80s, with Muhammad Ali squaring off against Joe Frazier, the collective sports world holding its breath with every jaw-shattering punch. Arsenal survived the punches, sustaining an incredible statistical disparity to pull out one of the most memorable 2-2 draws in the history of the competition.

Barcelona had 62 percent possession, 14 shots on goal (to Arsenal's two), and a four to nil corner kick ratio. On the road. It was a breathtaking performance from a team that always comes out swinging under the brightest lights. But Arsenal survived, mostly on the broken leg of Cesc Fabregas who, despite cracking his fibula winning a penalty kick from Barca centreback Carlos Puyol, stepped up, adrenaline fuming, and thundered home the penalty with all his might. He limped forward, grabbed the ball out of the back of the net, our beloved Captain, still thinking of a winner in stoppage time, before collapsing to the field clutching his broken leg.

He stayed on the field for the remainder of the match, limping into defensive positions and fighting through the pain to keep his team from having to go down to 10 men. I found out the next day he would be out for the remainder of the season. Cracked right fibula.

At least he went down in style.

It was the performance of a lifetime, one I will be proud to tell my children about someday. Cesc Fabregas, already an Arsenal legend at just 22 years old, firmly cemented himself into the grey matter of the collective red and white brain.

But the same can't be said for the rest of the team, and that's what needs to be discussed going forward. Barcelona didn't just carry 62 percent of the game's possession because they pass well, because they're creative and trained to play in-tune with one another. They build that possession not solely from offensive work, but through defensive determination. Most people consider the beautiful game to express itself going forward, but Barcelona proved on Wednesday that it can be just as beautiful going backward.

BBC columnist Phil McNulty wrote after the match that "Manuel Almunia had the half of his life to keep Messi, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at bay. The latter also missed an open goal, but Barca were beautiful to watch. Pace, power, poise, artistry, movement. And world-class players willing to work as hard off the ball as they did on it."

Arsenal is often accused of not giving full committment to both sides of the ball. I think about it like this, a football team is a machine, each player is a piece on the machine and the style passed down to the players from the coaches is software. Now, a team, as a machine, can be constructed in a lot of different ways. When Burnley made their fantastic ascension into the Premier League this season, they were built with one switch: On. It was survivalist programming. Burnley lacked the talent, the individual machine parts, to compete with many of the other teams in the Championship. But Burnley played with full committment every match of the season and won promotion into the most-prestigious league in the world.

Arsenal, however, is constructed differently. Filled with well-forged, well-programmed individual pieces, Arsenal is one of the architectural jewels of the footballing world. The problem with the Arsenal machine is that it's built with too many switches. Each player seems to have his own series of switches, all plugged into the overall mainframe of the team. When Arsenal is switched on, all individual pieces flipped up and the total machine humming away with perfection, they are unstoppable. But Arsenal rarely plays like that. The programming is there, the construction of the players is there, but the machine itself is overcomplicated.

Barcelona has the same type of engineer, only Pep Guardiola finished off his incredible machine with a single switch.

We've been beaten so many times in the last five years or so because of that apathy, because there are ALWAYS players on the other team willing to outwork us at every level of the field. Our forwards get outworked by defenders, our midfielders and wingers get outworked to the ball, and our defenders get outworked by pacy forwards. It's been discussed ad nauseum by Arsene Wenger and the hounds of the British press. But the point itself continues to be validated and vindicated. The reason it's brought up so damn much is because the team never changes. They haven't unlocked the right combination of switches to play consistently at their best.

If Arsenal wants to win a trophy this year, or really any year in the conceivable future, that has to change. The machine needs to be stripped down and rebuilt. When we become, as a team, determined enough to not sit on our asses and expect possession, expect goals, and expect wins, we have the ability to be beautiful. When this team decides to KICK and FIGHT for every single ball, for every ounce of possession, we can win a championship.

We treat the game like it's our right to play it our way and be successful. We treat possession like it's a right. Barcelona showed the Gunners, on their own turf, that it's not.

It's time Arsenal starts treating the game, the beautiful game, like a privilege.