Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Post Is Prologue: Raptors at Knicks

Toronto Raptors (24-22)
Knicks (18-26)
Madison Square Garden
7:30 PM EST

After too long a time tethered to the sofa, I'll be back in attendance the Garden for this game tonight. Unfortunately, though, I had these tickets in hand before the Knicks announced that they were willing to introduce you to Walt Frazier just for buying tickets. My ticket was actually a Christmas present from my two younger brothers. All three of us are meeting for a few drinks and then heading over. Even without the chance to meet Clyde, I feel this is a big night.'s Accuscore has the Knicks winning this matchup on this night 64% of the time and Vegas has the home team giving 3 points. Frankly, I'm a little surprised by all that. The Raptors recently seem to have found their stride after floundering to start the season, having won 5 out of their last 7. Some have attributed the team's slow start to the uncertainty surrounding free-agent-to-be Chris Bosh. Others say it was the team's difficulty integrating free-agent acquisition Hedo Turkoglu into the offense. The Knicks, on the other hand, are threatening a return to their early-season habit. Which was, of course, to flounder. Mike D'Antoni's squad has dropped 6 of 9 and has not maintained their strong play from December. Half of those recent defeats were blowouts, to boot. One of which came at the hands of these very same Raptors at MSG earlier this month.

When these teams last tangled it was a Friday evening. It was Italian Heritage Night at Madison Square Garden. And to the chagrin of the Knicks' promotions department, we had the wrong Italian. Former No. 1 draft pick Andrea Bargnani torched the Knicks from deep as the Raptors stormed out to 39-20 lead after one quarter. Bargnani was 4 for 4 from deep in the first and finished the game with 24 points and 12 rebounds.

After being down by 24 at the half the Knicks did make a late run, losing 112-104. And for a game that was lopsided early and only briefly tight there was an awful lot of tension on the court. Lee was getting into it with Bargnani and Bosh. Our should-be All-Star even picked up a technical. For whatever reason, these two squads seem to rile each other up more than some of their other Atlantic Division housemates. And, I dig that. It's part of the reason why I feel like tonight is a big night. The Knicks' recent skid has dropped them four games out of the eighth spot in the East and five games behind Toronto, who is currently slotted into the five hole. Thanks to the already-mentioned Raptors' win, Toronto leads the four-game season series 1-0. These two clubs play the last game of the season against one another and it's entirely possible that the season-series tiebreaker could come into play down the road.

The "I Told Ya So" Game:.
David Lee has officially been left off the East roster for the upcoming All-Star Game. And, no, you're not mistaken. Lee does still lead all Eastern Conference centers in points (19.4), minutes (36.8) and assists (3.4). Yes, he is also third in rebounds (11.4). Oh, and you are correct to assert that the addition of a consistent jump shot makes him arguably the most versatile offensive pivot player in the East. But neither the fan voting or the balloting by coaches has put Lee on the All-Star team. Even though he is most certainly having an all-star season. Just ask Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer.

I'm hoping that Lee can deliver a classic "I Told Ya So" performance tonight. Sort of like Eddy Curry did on Jan. 27, 2006, which was the last time the Knicks had a player with an All-Star case. Under Larry Brown, Curry had become the dominant post force that everyone thought he could be. Well, at least on offense. On defense he was a horrorshow. Well, just after Curry found out he wasn't playing in the midwinter classic, he dominated freshly-minted All-Star center Dwight Howard to the tune of 27 points and 10 boards in a three-point Knicks win.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Award You No Points

Dear people whom used to occasionally read the middling nonfiction of Paul Shirley and, like me, tend to enjoy unsentimental contrarian points of view:

Like many of you, I spend a lot of time perusing the Internets. Last night was no different. Well, except that I kept my pants on the whole time. Shortly before 8 p.m., I slouched on the couch. My netbook sat open on the living room table and the Knicks game played on the television. As the Knicks did their very best to make up for being thoroughly debacled by Dirk Nowiztki and the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday afternoon (and with a 25-point first quarter lead over Minnesota they were already doing a fine job), I stopped by Deadspin. The first thing I noticed was the picture of US soccer player Charlie Davies lounging and beaming at some casino. Davies’ speedy recovery from a car accident that left him physically shattered (broken bones in legs, arm and face) and another passenger dead is flat-out amazing. But, I digress. I’m not writing you to discuss such a positive and uplifting story. I’m writing you, dear friends, to talk about the NBA washout and sometimes ESPN columnist who thinks that Roberto Clemente was a chump. I’m writing you about Paul Shirley’s screed against Haiti and those who feel compelled to send aid in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck just outside the island nation’s capital earlier this month.

Barry Petchesky’s post on Deadspin directed me to Shirley’s original editorial at FlipCollective as well as to Shirley’s Twitter page, where he had responded to a few followers who had left less than complimentary reviews his story. In one response, Shirley called out an early critic for not carefully crafting a 2,000-word response. Well, Mr. Shirley’s intellectually vapid, factually misleading and emotionally bullying words were stuck in my head. As was his Twittered request. And, I ended up at my desk late into the night typing away just the sort of reasoned rebuttal that Shirley claimed to be looking for. But rather than send it to him. I want to share it with all of you. Especially with those you who have enjoyed his work and be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt or trust his assertions.

Shirley opens up his essay, entitled If You Rebuild It, They Will Come, with, what he announces to be, a provocative statement. He informs his readers that he is not planning on donating any money or time to the crisis in Haiti. He then equates donating money to aid in the immediate saving of lives in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that struck mere miles from Haiti's most densely-populated urban center to giving spare change to a homeless man on the street. Shirley’s comparison presumably implies that all the homeless are created equal and that all are to blame for their condition. Which is why it would be foolish to give them any money. I think. This sort of generalization and willful ignorance of the role that circumstance plays in our lives characterizes much of writing that follows. Bearing this in mind, the piece de resistance of Shirley’s editorial is his personal letter addressed “Dear Haitians.”
First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded. As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?
The Rest of the World

In his message to the people of Haiti, Shirley explicitly blames them for actively “developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” It would seem that he believes the minor and major players in Haitian history plotted an exact course from the Eighth Day of Genesis right through midday January 12, 2010, at which point their entire poorly-planned scheme backfired thanks to an earthquake in Port-Au-Prince that they should have seen coming when their ancestors were forcefully relocated their centuries ago. Again, Shirley exhibits a steadfast belief that we all control our environments and our destiny to a degree that makes us largely blame for what happens to us. Even natural disasters. In other words, did you see what she was wearing? She was totally asking for it.

Early on, Shirley makes it clear to his readers that he is far too clever for sympathy and empathy. He will not be duped out of $10 via text message by such Hallmark-peddled emotions. Fair enough. Perhaps the psychological concept of Just-World Phenomenon is highbrow enough for him to fall prey to, though. Just-World Phenomenon is the fallacy held by some who make value judgments based on the false assumption that everyone gets what they deserve, that the individual largely determines his or her own circumstances and fate. Essentially, this is the worldview of a naïve person who thinks the world is a fair place for everyone. This is a way of viewing the world that allows you to blame ALL poor people for their plight. This is the sort of mindset that causes one to assume that all homeless people are as morally bankrupt as they are fiscally bankrupt.

Perhaps Mr. Shirley’s preposterous—and I don’t mean that as an insult because I'm rather impressed—propensity to fail upward has led him to believe that each of us live lives whose possibilities and limits are defined by our actions alone. That Fate is a benevolent force rewarding the just and punishing the wicked. Where birthplace, economic strata and local custom play no role in defining our options. If there was ever a place on this earth to disprove those who believe in the Just-World Phenomenon then that place is Haiti.

For the sake of Mr. Shirley, let’s trace a brief history of Haiti. The nation of Haiti is one half of the island of Hispaniola, which was discovered by Christopher Columbus when he was poking around over here in the late fifteenth century. He claimed the land for Spain. A bit down the road, as the geopolitical fortunes of Spain suffered, the island became a French colony. And it was booming, producing tons of revenue and a top travel destination for slaves being imported from Africa. There was rampant deforestation on the small island as room was cleared for cash crops like sugar and coffee and housing for the enormous slave population. The ecosystem was not a concern to the small ruling class who presided over the commerce and the ever-growing slave population. Just a short boat trip to the north sat twelve British colonies. The citizens of these colonies were free white men (and those guys owned slaves of their own). Led by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others, these colonists declared independence from their British overlords and waged a war to secure their freedom. They won. But they kept their slaves. Obvi. A few years after the Americans won their independence,there was a bloody decade-long revolution in France. The common people rose up against the Ancien Regime. Revolution was most certainly in the air as the eighteenth century came to a close. And the trade winds brought the fresh air of freedom to Haiti. The island was overwhelmingly populated by slaves. And they yearned for freedom. Led by peasants-turned-generals and fueled by the same ideals that had been lionized in the newly formed United States of America and the recently enlightened France, the Haitians won their freedom in 1804. Yeah, they beat Napoleon. On their own. Because the US declined requests for aid. After all, nobody in US wanted slaves in the southern states to get any ideas.

The Haitians hard-fought victory, won after years of bloody conflict, is the only successful slave revolt in the modern world. The triumph created the first free black republic. In the aftermath of the war, France, reeling from the loss of its cash-cow colony, sent the Haitians a bill and demanded payment. The bill was for themselves. And the US was all like, “yeah, you’re going to have to pay that if you ever want your sovereignty acknowledged” The Haitian people were then forced to reparations for themselves! Because, you see, the French budget was all mussed up without the free work being provided by their Haitian slaves. Somebody must pay! Just think about that. Keep thinking. And, I haven’t even mentioned that the fledgling Haitian government was forced to take on loans at unsympathetic interest rates just to pay their “debt” to France. 80% of the national budget in Haiti was still allocated to making these payments in 1900. They didn’t finish paying off the debt until 1947. By then the economy was ruined, the politics were corrupt and many of the problems that Shirley blames today's Haitian people for were already rampant. The second half of the 20th century included various dictators and coups and near-constant meddling from the US Government who promoted our own economic and military interests at the expense of the development and independence of the local people. There is a long list of native trouble makers who took advantage of the situation as well as a long list of idealists who tried to make the country a better place. But long story short, Haiti is about as fucked a place as you’ll find. Ever. Anywhere. From George Washington and Napoleon to Papa Doc, there have been a lot of cooks in the kitchen as this particularly noxious stew was cooked up. Yet, Shirley blames the Haitians alive right now (or dead only recently) for the circumstances in the country. Yeah. Ok. So, I guess it’s Brook Lopez’s fault that the IZOD Center sucks?

Having established his reasons for not feeling sympathy about the people of Haiti—because this is all their fault—Shirley then moves on to his next misguided point. He rails against aiding the people suffering in Port-au-Prince by contributing money right now because their hometown was built on a fault line and such a location is not suitable for habitation, especially by so many people. When embarking on this misadventure, Shirley makes no distinction between immediate life-saving disaster relief being conducted by non-partisan groups like the Red Cross and a blank check being handed to a government bureaucrat behind closed doors. He envisions his donation being used to for business as usual in Haiti. Perhaps he doesn't grasp the magnitude of the devastation because he's altogether discounting the earthquake when talking about sending cash to this island. Parts of this rant may as well have been written last month. Actually, had they been written in December 2009 then some of this would make a lot more sense. But right now, today, people are dying and starving and in need of medical care.

And as far as his assertion that Port-au-Prince should not be rebuilt, maybe Shirley should take off his “logic-colored glasses” and realize that there is no reset button for history or geography. No one would have logically set up a lot of things exactly the way that they currently are. My girlfriend wouldn't be about to move to New Jersey if that wasn't where her boyfriend lived. And I surely wouldn’t allow a guy who uses the phrase “logic-colored glasses” to write professionally. I also wouldn’t have set up Haiti the way that it is currently composed. But that decision is not ours to make. And, it’s not for Haitians to make either. They were born there. I was born in New Jersey. Like everyone else on the earth, they were born into a civilization with established population centers. One such location, Port-au-Prince, happened to be on a fault line. But so are lots of other major urban centers. Lisbon was rocked in 1755 by an earthquake and then consumed by a tsunami and fires. Bucharest was leveled after a 5-minute quake in 1977. Mexico City was all messed up in 1985. Yet these places still exist. And, I don’t think that Shirley disapproves of their existence. Although I bet he's got a few choice things to say about Mexicans. Someone reading his article does get the impression that Shirley’s only problem with FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that their feet dragging wasn’t done on purpose.

Ironically, Shirley was born in Redwood City, California (although he was raised in Kansas). This small city is located on the San Francisco Peninsula and is part of the Bay Area. A professor at UC Berkley first identified the San Andreas Fault line in 1895. It’s named after a small lake just south of San Francisco. You know what also lies south of San Francisco? You guessed it. Redwood City. Should Shirley’s birthplace be allowed to exist by his logic? Should San Francisco? After all, that city was famously leveled during an earthquake in 1906? And we all remember watching live footage of that quake that struck during the 1989 World Series being contested between Oakland and San Francisco. Who let those heathens rebuild? As Americans have rebuilt New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina there has been an increased awareness of building stress-resistant structures and planning with deference for the wrath of Mother Nature. If Shirley actually put in the effort then he could have made an intellectually defensible point that was still shocking enough to draw some press. He might have tried something along the lines of the “Well, this earthquake and tragic loss of life is the best thing that ever happened to Haiti because now they’ll be forced to start from scratch.” But he doesn’t seem to conceive of Haitians rebuilding or improving their circumstances because he seems to deny them the capacity for this. Because they are, in his eyes, like the homeless: Completely responsible for their lot in life.

Aside irrationally blaming Haitians for being trapped under fallen buildings and lobbying for area of Port-au-Prince to be abandoned, the most maddening aspect of Shirley’s post is his conflation of my personal donation to Red Cross and a government-to-government aid transfusion were funds are allocated as Haitian officials see fit. He comprehends no distinction between humanitarian disaster relief and long term governmental aid programs. These things are very different. The Red Cross will keep someone alive tomorrow with money that I gave today. That is vital and noble. Any monies that the Haitian government gets from the US or the World Bank ten years from now or ten years ago could very well line the pockets of politicians. International aid is a tricky thing and corruption is rampant. But this is not a reason to avoid helping earthquake victims!

If Shirley took the time to make a distinction between avenues of aid then he could be writing about the flawed methodologies of international organizations and his contrarian desire to withhold the sort of aid least likely to work—as opposed withholding the aid that is saving lives right now—until outdated ideas are discarded. But he doesn’t really want anyone to give anything to anyone in need. Ever. Because it's likely the victim's fault. Because they’re poor. And they're stupid jerks. Stupid jerks who don’t use condoms. The “condom” remark toward the end of Shirley’s “Letter to the Haitians” provides perhaps the most telling moment of the entire article. Because it represents another chance to make a valid point about the politicization of foreign aid in Third World countries. But, Shirley either doesn’t know the history or doesn’t see the connection. Instead, he makes a joke. Man, those black people sure have a lot of babies! Oh! And a lot of AIDS! Snap! And, I know that we all love a good AIDS joke around the Internets but the problem here is the seething blame that he places on these people. Not once in this whole story does he ask “Why?” or “How?”

If he did, he might know that one reason (among many) that condom use is so low in countries receiving US aid is that for decades a certain block of our politicians have tried to curtail birth control use domestically and abroad. Since at least 1973, the US Government has refused to allow any foreign aid to be spent directly on abortions in any country and in 1984, Reagan instituted what is known as “the global gag rule, ”which forbids US aid to go to any hospital, clinic or organization that performs or even provides education about contraception. If a clinic wanted US help then they couldn't even TALK about condoms. During his presidency, Clinton lifted this rule [insert horny Clinton joke here] but Bush II propped it right back up again as he championed abstinence-only education at home and overseas. Sadly, one reason why so many people in underdeveloped countries like Haiti don’t use condoms is that our country has been limiting access to them. Add this to the fact that much international aid in places like Haiti comes directly from Christian charities who are ideologically opposed to contraception and suddenly it becomes somewhat more clear why there’s not a four-door sedan in every driveway and a condom on every dick.

If Shirley had done the slightest homework on the way in which ideology influences aid then he could have made yet another insightful and still contrarian argument for withholding aid in certain instances (or at least from giving via certain avenues), but he didn’t do that. He blamed the people who are standing in line for the water and bandages. There is undoubtedly a huge global struggle to figure out the best way to distribute aid to undeveloped countries. The clash between the immediate relief of giving a man a fish and the long-term relief of teaching a man to fish has yet to be reconciled. This is a huge problem. And, one that will hopefully be addressed as the international community switches gears from disaster relief to reconstruction in Haiti. The shallowness of his consideration is mind bottling. I'm not trying to champion the Haitian people are defend the pre-earthquake state of that country. Because that place was messed up. But it was messed up for a lot of reasons. What I am trying to do is say that Shirley did an absolutely terrible job with this wannabe-Hitchens screed because he didn't think any of his points through. He did a disservice to any reader who had come to trust him during his writing career. And, that's why we should not read another word this guy ever writes.

Well, because of all that stuff and because Shirley likely thinks Roberto Clemente was a chump. After all, the Hall of Fame outfielder died in a plane crash while delivering much-needed supplies to earthquake-ravaged Managua on Dec. 31 1973. And, why was Clemente on a plane on New Year’s Eve? Because Nicaragua was a mess at the time and there was much fear in the US that the aid was not reaching those who needed it most. So, what did Clemente, who was from Puerto Rico, do in the face of such circumstances? Did he see the existing corruption as a reason keep his offering from the collection plate? Nope. Did he see the good fortune in his own life as proof that we all get what we deserve? Nope. He saw the already fucked up circumstances and felt that they demanded even greater action. In memory of Clemente, please stop reading this guy.


The Rest of the World

PS: And, yes. I do know that I’m the fool for letting Shirley’s spotlight-grabbing contrarian ploy bother me. Who knows if he actually believes any of what he wrote. It’s entirely possible this is another savvy media play by a marginally-talented athlete with a modicum of writing skill who has managed to consistently fail upward. Still, I’ve thought twice and thrice and [insert word for seventeen times] about his post and I just can’t stand by when a writer with Shirley’s platform (he has published a book and writes wrote for ESPN)spreads gross misinformation to readers who may be inclined to assume his opinion is researched in the slightest. So, if he really wanted a 2,000-word rebuttal then I guess I was the guy for the job.


Monday, January 25, 2010

The End of the Beginning

I delicately placed the mostly-full, blue-and-gold can of light beer down on the wood floor, to the left of my chair, when Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez deftly pulled the hand off back from hard-charging, hulking rookie running back Shonn Greene. Was this it? The predictable, yet-still-effective big play (usually play action, occasionally accompanied by a rollout) that the Jets have been attempting a few offensive series into each game in recent weeks? Why, yes. I think it was.

When Sanchez pump faked, I inched toward the edge of my seat. I leaned over, hands on knees, fingers digging into my knee caps through the same gray pants that I'd been wearing on game day for nearly a month. The ball traced a precise arc downfield, that any T-82 calculator would have envied. Drop-prone receiver Braylon Edwards shook his defender by faking in towards the post and then turning his route back out and up the sideline. I was now up and out of the same leather armchair that I'd sat in two Saturdays ago when the Jets upset the Bengals on a blustery afternoon in Cincinnati, and nearly knocked over the three pillars of empty cans to my left. As No. 17 raced along the sideline, I was striding across the living room, across the expanse of the beautiful flat-screen television, tip-toing the edge of the area rug (that really does tie the living room together, although not as securely as the trio of framed sketches of Roman landmarks hanging above the television) with my hands out in front of my chest screaming BRAAAAAAAAAAAY-LLLLUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!

And then he caught the ball. Dr. Dropsies, himself, caught the long bomb. Further validating my theory that he can make every play provided his feet are not already in the endzone. I raised my hands up over my head to signal touchdown. He broke down the sideline. Edwards crossed in to the endzone, flipped away the ball and this was happening.

After two playoff upsets and a week of maybe-well-possibly-they-could conejcture, this was really happening. Edwards didn't drop the ball. HOLY MOTHERFUCKING BEARDED HIPPIE JESUS ON A STREET CORNER THE J-E-T-S ARE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL! Am I going to the Super Bowl? HELL, YEAH. I'M GOING TO THE FUCKING SUPER BOWL!?!?!?!?!?! Is there time to drive. No. I'm flying. To MIAMI. WHAT IS THIS MIAMI BEACH? YES, IT IS. How much will it cost? Who cares! I can't believe Braylon caught that ball! Oh my god. The Jets are beating the Colts. This is really for realsies totally happening! They are gonna pull this off!

There were a half dozen people in the same living room, watching the game, watching me. The were likekly wary of me breaking something in my exuberance but they were also caught up in what seemed to be happening. I was laughing. Yelling. Clapping. Totally caught up in the moment. And, what a moment. I mean, what a throw. What a catch. And that speed burst to reach the endzone unmolested. What a beautiful moment. Absolutely gorgeous.

And thoroughly fleeting.

Because even though the Jets took a 17-6 lead late in the first half on another Sanchez touchdown pass, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning spent virtually every minute after that second Jets' strike showing that he may in fact be the very best quarterback in the history of the National Football League. He gave up on No. 1 wide receiver Reggie Wayne. He called back the rescue boats and left him to rot on Revis Island, instead exploiting the rest of the Jets' injury-depleted secondary by threading passes to Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark. Manning discarded many of the plays coming in from the sideline. Mostly the ones that didn't call for him to throw the ball. He might has well have taken the field for the second half wearing surgical scrubs or a hangman's hood. He was precise, professional, playing without malice or mercy. My green waves of euphoria crashed on the broad shoulder pads of Peyton. And he picked up his teammates and the middle-aged men who coach those teammates and placed them on those very same shoulders and carried them to Miami.

All of Sanchez's improvements in recent weeks, all of the yards accrued with Greene's and Thomas Jones' running this year, the exemplary work of the offensive and defensive lines, and Brad Smith's pass that I've been forecasting to anyone who would listen. All of that stuff. Wasn't enough against Peyton. Once he got his lineman positioned in such a way that he wasn't underfoot after each dropback then he was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

And, I'm fine with it. Because for about 20 minutes I was as happy as I've ever been as a sports fan. From the moment that Sanchez lofted that play-action pass to Edwards right through the moment the Jets kicked off after Dustin Keller's touchdown catch, I thought my team was going to the Super Bowl. And, I know that two teams go every year. And they have been for a long time. But not the Jets. Not those same ol' Jets. Those Jets usually aren't even good enough to break your heart. Like the Knicks were for so long. And like the Mets have been recently. That second quarter Edwards TD catch will go down alongside Endy Chavez's over-the-wall catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCs, Mike Piazza's game-tying home run in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, John Starks' dunk against the Bulls in 1993, and Larry Johnson's 4-point play in 1999 as one of those New York sports moments* that meant everything right up until it was rendered largely trivial by an ensuing defeat.

But even if these Jets are not going to the Super Bowl. Even if I'm not going to the Super Bowl. And, I'm not. We all shared that fleeting exultation for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon. We all felt that joy. And it was real. Even if it was ill-founded. And, I'll take it. Because the beauty of sports fandom is those moments. Those ALL CAPS moments. Those I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT SOMETHING I WANTED TO HAPPEN IS HAPPENING AND THAT A GROUP OF STRANGERS TO WHOM I REFER TO AS "WE" HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT moments. And, you've got to take them when you can, even if they come in a loss. Especially if they come in a loss. Because that's life. At least if you're a fan of the Mets, Knicks and Jets.

Sunday was a great day for this Jets fan. Mostly because of the first two thirds of that second quarter when I believed with the fervor of the newly converted. When I was as happy as any Colts or Saints fan will be in two week's time. And, just because of a football game. But also because I do believe the 2010 Jets have every chance to be better than the 2009 Jets. And that sort of optimism is a rare commodity. And, I'm going to grab onto it just like Edwards gathered that long pass from Sanchez (or maybe I'll grab it with the much-surer hands of Jericho Cotchery). Throughout the second half of the 1990s, the Knicks were playing with desperation in the postseason. They needed to win. Or else. Every shot was their last best shot. And the Mets were always pushing that rock up hill like Sisyphus only to have it roll back on them. The run in 2006 wasn't so much the start of the run as it was their best gilt-edged chance. But I think with Rex Ryan behind the wheel that these Jets have everything in front of them. I can only hope for a few more moments like the one I had on Sunday. And, of course, it would be nice if one of those moments came at the end of season that they close with a victory.
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."-Winston Churchill
*And, when I say New York sports moments, I'm talking about those Jets-Mets-Knicks fans out there whose collective suffering can stand right up there alongside just about anyone's. When I think of New York sports fanhood I think of the gritty green-collar fans who've been faked spiked on, had their hearts ripped out by Michael Jordan and been witness to the self-immolation of their best and brightest (Doc and Daryl, I'm looking at you two). When I think of New York sports I'm not thinking about the luxury box crowd at Yankees Stadium or the AARP folks at Giants games who are more likely to tell you sit down then to high five you. But, I digress. And, I don't mean to knock Yankees fans and Giants fan but only to point out that there is another side of this city and its environs. The side that isn't Wall Street and Westchester. The side that is two jobs and a leak in your kitchen but hanging in their and keeping your head up.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Watch That Line

Just like last week, the late action seems to on the Jet's opponent. Yesterday the Colts were favored by 7 points. Then 7.5 points And now 8.5 points. Once this line gets up to Jets +9 then it's time to start wagering on the underdog J-E-T-S.

WWOD's Conference Champion Game Wagers
-When the lines first came out and the Jets were only getting 7.5 points, I teased the Colts down to -1.5 and the OVER down to 34. This was an emotional hedge that would give me a silver lining for a Colts win. And, I've got a feeling that if the Colts win that they're going to put up more than 20 points (although the Jets' foes have averaged close to 14 this season).

-As far as props, I'm looking at shortest field goal UNDER 26.5 yards, considering how good the Jets' defense has been playing how likely their offense is to be unable to punch it in at some point. I'm also at the Special Teams or Defensive Score bet that's coming off at +150 (meaning you win $150 for betting $100). The OVER on Austin Collie receiving yards at 50.5 might see a few bucks from me since I can only assume that Peyton Manning is not going to force any balls to his No. 1 option, who should be wearing Darrelle Revis around like a mink snuggie throughout the game.

-With the Jets' line moving and a likely shootout I'm thinking about teasing the Jets up to 15 (assuming that line gets up to +9) and the Vikings-Saints OVER down to 48.

-The Vikings are now getting just +3.5, which means the public money has been lining the denim pockets of the Gunslinger. In a game that essentially seems a pick 'em to me I might be tempted to just take the points. But probably not.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Or, The Journey to the Center of the East

In H.G. Wells' science fiction classic The Time Machine, the protagonist, known simply as the Time Traveler, hurtles through the far future thanks to a device of his own invention. During one stop he encounters a far-future earth with a leisure class living without toil or (seemingly) trouble above ground and a brutish, dirty working race reclusively residing beneath the surface. Wells dubbed the beneath-the-cellar-dwelling race "the Morlocks" and his societal dichotomy has reappeared countless times in fiction in the ensuing 100+ years. Superman battled "mole men" in a black-and-white film in the 1950s. And most comic book superheroes have done so since. In nearly every case, those who dwell beneath the surface are dirty, unkempt and out to overthrow the race above. There have also been well-documented accounts of actual humans living in squalor beneath our city streets today. And, stories of a society thriving in a labyrinth beneath our feet always fascinated me.
Perhaps this is why I can't help but think of Wells' Morlocks when I look at the standings in the Eastern Conference of the NBA. The East is an earth with two separate and unequal classes of team. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat are the club's that live in the nationally televised spotlight with at least one superstar per roster. They have contended for and/or won titles in recent years. They've got dependable home crowds and provide a draw whenever they come to a town near you.

Beneath them, mostly toiling away on regional cable channels and before sporadic crowds, lies the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. Some of these teams have a top-flight player and others still draw a solid crowd at home but they are lower-class citizens in the NBA. Each year sees one or two of these second-tier clubs claw its way to street level for a breath of fresh air but they usually do so at the expense of one of their brethren. The Pistons have been cast out of the light in recent years, allowing Toronto to escape the darkness of the basement. With the Raptors scuffling this season, though, the Bobcats have climbed above the .500 mark and made a case to be considered superior to their also-ran siblings.

Mired in mediocrity, plagued by poor personnel decisions, embroiled in mind games and scandalized by threats of gun violence, the lower-level teams are not going to catch Lebron and the Cavaliers this season. Although they share the same court a few times a year, they are not truly in the same league. Each group of teams - the glamour clubs and the grunts - is mostly only competing against members of its own group. The top teams vie for playoff seeding and homecourt advantage deep into the postseason tournament while the bottom teams vie to reach the center of the East's standings and gain access to the bottom few playoff spots.

In this regard, the bottom feeders are not like dastardly mole people that Supe tangles with. Neither the 76ers or Knicks are looking to steal the title this year. The Bulls are not going to take over the earth. Nope. The effort in the subterranean reaches of the East isn't exactly aimed at overthrowing the surface dwellers. Not at all. The NBA's morlocks are just looking to beat out their fellow cellar-dwellers for the 7th or 8th seed in the conference. Think of this chase for the final spots in the playoffs as midterm elections among the Mole People and nothing more. It doesn't affect the game's stars or their clubs. It's just an internecine struggle amongst middling franchises.

Whether they want to admit it or not (and they don't), these bottom feeders are playing a shadow season in the midst of the Games of the Week on ABC and ESPN and this underworld campaign began in earnest last Friday when the Raptors throttled the Knicks at the Garden on Italian Heritage Night. Following the Knicks loss to Toronto, they split a home-and-home set with the Pistons. The game with Toronto and the second tilt with Detroit were vitriolic affairs. As well they should be. These are the games that will decide the season for these clubs. The way that the Knicks play against their direct competitors for the last playoff spots will do far more to tell the tale of this campaign then the result of this Friday night's game against Kobe Bryant and the defending-world-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Jan. 15 Toronto @ Knicks (L, 104-112)
Jan. 15 Washington @ Chicago
Jan. 16 Knicks @ Detroit (L, 90-94 )
Jan. 18 Detroit @ Knicks (W, 99-91)
Jan. 20 Toronto @ Milwaukee
Jan. 22 Milwaukee @ Toronto
Jan. 22 Indiana @ Detroit
Jan. 23 Philadelphia @ Indiana
Jan. 27 Philadelphia @ Milwaukee
Jan. 28 Toronto @ Knicks
Jan. 30 Knicks @ Washington
Jan. 31 Indiana @ Toronto
Feb. 2 Toronto @ Indiana
Feb. 3 Washington @ Knicks
Feb. 3 Chicago @ Philadelphia
Feb. 5 Milwaukee @ Knicks
Feb. 5 Detroit @ Indiana
Feb. 6 Indiana @ Milwaukee
Feb. 9 Detroit @ Milwaukee
Feb. 9 Washington @ Charlotte
Feb. 10 Philadelphia @ Toronto
Feb. 16 Knicks @ Chicago
Feb. 17 Chicago @ Knicks
Feb. 19 Milwaukee @ Detroit
Feb. 20 Washington @ Toronto
Feb. 20 Charlotte @ Milwaukee
Feb. 20 Philadelphia @ Chicago
Feb. 22 Milwaukee @ Knicks
Feb. 22 Chicago @ Washington
Feb. 24 Indiana @ Chicago
Feb. 25 Milwaukee @ Indiana
Feb. 26 Knicks @ Washington
Feb. 27 Chicago @ Indiana
Mar. 3 Detroit @ Knicks
Mar. 3 Washington @ Milwaukee
Mar. 5 Knicks @ Toronto
Mar. 5 Milwaukee @ Washington
Mar. 7 Philadelphia @ Toronto
Mar. 9 Philadelphia @ Indiana
Mar. 10 Charlotte @ Philadelphia
Mar. 12 Washington @ Detroit
Mar. 14 Indiana @ Milwaukee
Mar. 15 Knicks @ Philadelphia
Mar. 16 Charlotte @ Indiana
Mar. 19 Philadelphia @ Knicks
Mar. 19 Detroit @ Indiana
Mar. 20 Chicago @ Philadelphia
Mar. 23 Indiana @ Detroit
Mar. 23 Charlotte @ Washington
Mar. 24 Philadelphia @ Milwaukee
Mar. 24 Washington @ Indiana
Mar. 26 Washington @ Charlotte
Mar. 28 Chicago @ Detroit
Mar. 31 Philadelphia @ Charlotte
Apr. 2 Milwaukee @ Charlotte
Apr. 2 Chicago @ Washington
Apr. 3 Toronto @ Philadelphia
Apr. 3 Charlotte @ Chicago
Apr. 6 Milwaukee @ Chicago
Apr. 6 Detroit @ Philadelphia
Apr. 7 Knicks @ Indiana
Apr. 9 Milwaukee @ Philadelphia
Apr. 10 Detroit @ Charlotte
Apr. 11 Chicago @ Toronto
Apr. 12 Washington @ Knicks
Apr. 12 Toronto @ Detroit
Apr. 14 Knicks @ Toronto
Apr. 14 Indiana @ Washington
Apr. 14 Chicago 2 Charlotte

It looks like there are three playoff spots to be had and nine mediocre teams (10 if you include Miami) within 10 games of each other. By my count, there are more than 60 games pitting two of these subterranean rivals against each other, including 11 games in the last 10 days of the regular season. Avert your eyes from the bright lights of the better teams and thrill to the desperation of these games.

Welcome to the Underworld.

We shall sporadically check back on this shadow season to see how our light-starved contestants are faring in their journey to the center of the East.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday's Starting Five

WWOD's daily Starting Five provides the talking points you'll need each day to confidently interact with your fellow sports enthusiasts (and your awkward boss who only is capable of making small talk with his employees about the Yankees and the Honor Roll status of his children) at the water cooler or impress members of the opposite gender at the lunch counter or post-work gin joint with your extreme mastery of the minutiae of athletic competition.

1. The Cleveland Cavaliers. There was nothing particularly interesting about the Cavs' 108-100 win over the Raptors at the Q on Tuesday night. Neither team ever distanced itself from the other. There was no large run. And no player went off for 30 points. In fact, just one player topped 25 points. Not surprisingly that player was Lebron James, with 28 points. It was a ho-hum win for the Cavs. And, I guess, that's the point. After a lackluster open to the 2009-2010 campaign, the team has found its stride. They've won 7 of their last 10 and are now 15-3 at home. And two of those three home losses came during the first fortnight of the season. Like I said, the game wasn't one for the time capsule but it was chock full of significance. For starters, Shaq surpassed the 28,000 point plateau and noted wryly that if he'd been a better free throw shooter that he'd already be at 30,000. Another item of potential significance was that the Cavs held Hedo Turkoglu to just 3 points on 1-6 shooting in 24 minutes. This jumped out at me from the boxscore because I certainly remember Hedo draining some big shots for the Magic against the Lebronaliers in last year's playoffs and I don't doubt that LBJ remembers that, too.

2. Rachel Alexandra. Horse racing is known as the "Sport of Kings." And OTB parlors around the country are generally full of male aspirants. But yesterday the sport crowned its queen. The lady horse that won the Preakness was named the 2009 Horse of the Year. Rachel Alexandra was a perfect 8 for 8 in 2009 and bested the boys in three of those races, including the middle leg of the Triple Crown. Unusually, the second-place finisher was another filly, Zenyatta. It was the first time that there were two female finalists for the honor. Zenyatta was also undefeated last year.

3. Felix Hernandez. With all of the attention on the Phillies' acquisition of Roy Halladay this winter there has been surprisingly little attention paid to the team that may have improved its pitching rotation the most this winter. And, attention must be paid! The Mariners added former Philly ace Cliff Lee to their staff. And, the best part for the seamheads of the Emerald City is that Lee will be the No. 2 behind the runner up for the 2009 AL Cy Young Award, Felix Hernandez. And, not only do the M's enter next season with arguably the best 1-2 combo (and, no AJ Burnett is not better than Lee) in baseball, but Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik just locked up King Felix to a five-year deal that will pay the young ace approximately $80 million. He turned 23 last August and went 19-5 over 34 starts and pitched to a 2.49 ERA with 217 strikeouts.

4. Clint Dempsey. Word spread more quickly and with greater urgency than any US Soccer news that I can remember when Dempsey injured his knee playing for Fulham last weekend against Blackburn. Fulham skipper Roy Hobson noted after the match that "the initial prognosis for Clint is not good." Early word was that he had torn ligaments that would need to be surgically repaired. This put his participation in the upcoming World Cup in serious jeopardy, weakening a US side already depleted by injuries. Thankfully, though, reports have come out that he wasn't injured as badly as was initially feared. Surgery is now unlikely and Dempsey has an honest shot at being ready to go by June. Having risen from a hardscrabble upbringing in Nacogdoches, Texas to the fastest and most physically demanding soccer league in the world, Dempsey is a fighter by nature and I don't doubt that he'll do everything possible to be in top shape by the time the national team departs for South Africa. He is the X-factor for the US Men's National Team because he has shown flashes of inspirational improvisational play that are side has historically lacked. Of course, he also goes missing for large patches of time. But the guy has a penchant for scoring the goal when you need it most and I think that we need him to make the sort of run that we are capable of making.

5. Shaun Ellis. The longest-tenured member of the New York Jets Football Club broke his large, meaty left hand on his first defensive play in Sunday's upset win over the San Diego Chargers. He temporarily left the field to have his paw encased in a makeshift cast. He returned with a club at the end of his long, muscular left arm. Drafted by Jets with the 12th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Ellis was the highest drafted player of the last generation of young players brought in by this franchise. John Abraham, Chad Pennington and Anthony Becht were also drafted by the Jets in the first round that year. That group had a few solid seasons, a few playoff appearances and narrowly missed reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2005. But kicker Doug Brien missed a kick in Pittsburgh and Ellis' has yet to advance this far in the postseason.

Coaches and players have changed over the years but Ellis has been a constant, playing 16 games in 7 of his 10 seasons and no fewer than 13 in any campaign. The defensive end out of the University of Tennessee, where he overlapped with Peyton Manning, isn't a guy to run his mouth. Which makes him almost a strange fit on Rex Ryan's defense but he's a warrior. He's postponed necessary surgery on his left hand until after this week's game because there wouldn't be enough time for the skin to heal in order for him to play. He'll have surgery next week regardless because the doctors insist that he'd be ready to go again two weeks after having his hand repaired. Just in time for the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tuesday's Starting Five

WWOD's daily Starting Five provides the talking points you'll need each day to confidently interact with your fellow sports enthusiasts (and your awkward boss who only is capable of making small talk with his employees about the Yankees and the Honor Roll status of his children) at the water cooler or impress members of the opposite gender at the lunch counter or post-work gin joint with your extreme mastery of the minutiae of athletic competition.

1. Tyreke Evans. The New York Knicks selected Jordan Hill out of the University of Arizona with the eighth pick of the 2009 NBA Draft and the power forward-center has only seen sporadic playing time this season. Hill has shown a nice shooting touch but seems only to get the call on bank holidays and during blowouts. A few months ago, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni remarked about the rookie big man that "He's got to get stronger, he'll do that; He has to get more comfortable, he'll do that." Well, the No. 4 pick in the '09 draft, Tyreke Evans, has already done did those things. Evans is strong. And comfortable. After being tapped by the Kings, the one-and-done combo guard out of Memphis has averaged 37+ minutes per night and 20+ points. Last night, he racked up a career-high 34 points to go with 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks as he almost rallied the Kings from more than 20 back at Charlotte. Oh, and the 6-foot-6 inch guard managed such a big night while being sued in civil court for the 2007 wrongful death of a kid who may have been killed by Evans' cousin in a car that Evans may have been driving.

2. Stephon Marbury. An early tagline on an advertisement for two-time All-Star Stephon Marbury's sneakers was "Where you're from defines where you're at." This slogan made plenty of sense when the Coney Island-native was treading the boards at Madison Square Garden while playing for the Knicks. The local boy had come home to revitalize his hometown team and was rolling out a line of affordable footwear for kids whose parents couldn't afford to drop upwards of a hundred bucks on kicks. Things were looking up, yet again, for the guy whose career numbers once compared so favorably to Oscar Robertson. But a few turbulent years later, Marbury finds himself joining the Shanxi club in the Chinese Basketball Association. The last time you saw Marbury he was a duck out of water as a defensive-minded rotation player with the title-contending Celtics who seemed afraid to take the big shot. The time you saw him before that he was making even his detractors uncomfortable with oddball video diaries on Youtube. The next time you see him, he'll be playing for the 15th-place club in the 17-team Chinese League.

3. The Charlotte Bobcats. The realpolitik playoff contender in the East has crossed the .500 threshold and pulled even with the Miami Heat for the fifth spot in the conference standings. Although they almost squandered a large lead against Tyreke Evans and the Kings last night, Larry Brown's boys are playing effective basketball. It's not always ever pretty and the team is not going to be an elite team or even a threat to an elite team in a seven-game series. But they can beat anyone on any given night because they produce an honest effort every night. Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace are as intense as anyone in the Association but possessing of talent a tier below the upper echelon. And this talent deficit is exactly why this team is so successful. Under the ever-taciturn Brown, this group knows that they have to play hard nigh after night. They know they can't coast on talent alone and are aware that many other teams think they can. And this is largely why the Bobcats surrender a league-low 92.9 points per game.

4. The Los Angeles Lakers. At the conclusion of a full NBA slate on MLK Day, the marquee game was a rematch between last year's finalists: LA and Orlando. Coming into this season, pundits lauded the Magic for their newfound depth, having brought in Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson and re-signed Polish dynamo Marcin Gortat. There was also a growing concern over whether LA's de facto Ariza for Artest swap would ruin the careful chemistry of the world champs. Fast forward a few months and people on the Left Coast are more concerned with potentially trading Bynum than with Artest's negative influence and everyone with a Lil' Penny doll in the attic is trying to figure out what is wrong the chemistry of the Magic.After the Magic used the three ball to pull ahead in the third quarter, the Lakers showed themselves as a deep team in taking over down the stretch. Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar figured prominently in the team's 19-3 run to open the fourth quarter. Although Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard pulled the visiting Magic close by the time the final buzzer sounded at the Staples Center, the road team couldn't overcome that blitz early in the final quarter. The Lakers continue to roll and the Magic continue to be good but not quite the sum of their parts.

5. Dirk Nowitzki. He's oldish. He's blondish. He's certainly German. And he's playing as well right now as he ever has. Dirk scored 37 last night as he pulled the Mavs ahead of a depleted Boston Celtics team in Beantown. He netted nine straight points in the game's decisive run in the third quarter.

Sixth Man. Nate Robinson. With Knicks starting point guard Chris Duhon having reverted back to his second-half form from last season (which was also his early-season form from this year and quite likely is just his form) and Larry Hughes still on the outs with coach D'Antoni, a large swath of minutes at a guard spot have been handed to N8. On Monday afternoon he played 34 minutes to Duhon's 20. And Robinson has shown why he has been linked to the Celtics and Lakers in trade rumors. He scored a game-high 27 points. He drained five three pointers and flushed one sweet ally-oop dunk. He fueled the team's late surge past the Pistons that salvaged the last of a trio of games this weekend in the simmering race for the eighth playoff spot in the East.

Benched. Cadbury Chocolate. In a long-time-coming-but-still-shocking move, US food giant Kraft acquired Cadbury for $19 billion. People in Great Britain are freaking out that the nearly 200-year-old confectioner has been gobbled up by a foreign power. I'm just nervous that I'm not going to be able to enjoy the occasional Flake Bar.

Who's Coming With Me?

There are 700+ miles between the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Lucas Oil Field in Indiana. And there are 1,700+ tickets available for the AFC Championship Game currently on sale at starting at $170. With a 10-12 hour drive and a kickoff shortly after 3:00 on Sunday there is just enough time arrive back in the New York area in time for work on Monday morning.

I like that math. Who's in?

Happy Birthday Jeff Van Gundy

Longtime coach in the Knicks organization and current member of the best three-man broadcasting team in pro sports, Jeff Van Gundy was born into this world on Jan. 19, 1962. He likely pulled an all-nighter studying game film and drinking Diet Cokes that very night. Years later, he was the balding boy wonder on Pat Riley's staff who earned the top spot on the staff after Riles' serpentine departure, thanks in large to being on the good side of the Big Fella. He led the upstart '99 club to the NBA Finals and then managed to get out of Dodge before the big top came crashing down on Jimmy Dolan's Seventh Avenue Circus. After a nice run in Houston, where he brought Ewing aboard as an assistant, Van Gundy reinvented himself as relentlessly idealistic basketball broadcaster with fine comedic timing. To celebrate JVG's birthday, WWOD unearthed a few poignant images from his hoops career.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday's Starting Five

WWOD's daily Starting Five provides the talking points you'll need each day to confidently interact with your fellow sports enthusiasts (and your awkward boss who only is capable of making small talk with his employees about the Yankees and the Honor Roll status of his children) at the water cooler or impress members of the opposite gender at the lunch counter or post-work gin joint with your extreme mastery of the minutiae of athletic competition.

1. The New York Jets. By 9 p.m. last night, I’d mapquested routes from the Meadowlands to Lucas Oil Field. I'd packed my suddenly very lucky No. 42 kelly green mesh Ronnie Lott jersey and placed my ready-to-go duffel bag by the door of my apartment. Apparently, it’s about a 12 hour drive from here to there, by way of I-78 and West Virginia, out to the home of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. So, who’s coming with me? I know that Mark Sanchez, Dustin Keller, Shonn Greene, Thomas Jones and company will be out there – although they’re flying – because they’ve ADVANCED TO THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME! After upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs, the Jets went on the road to San Diego and upended the Chargers, 17-14, with a dominant second-half performance. Rex Ryan's bunch hit harder. They held on longer. And, they kicked truer. According to Ryan, it was "Jets Football." This run to the AFC Championship Game marks just the fourth time the Jets have advanced to the Conference Title Game. The Jets will take their league-best rushing attack and league-best defense into Indy to face arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play this game. Manning vs. Sanchez. This matchup is largely why the Jets are currently getting 7.5 points in Vegas. I teased the OVER down to 34 and the Colts down to -.1.5 for a few bucks already and am hoping to be able to put some money on the Jets closer to the weekend when all the rubes in the Midwest start wagering on the Horseshoes and pushing the line, hopefully, up to 9 or 10. Well, that's the plan, anyway. Although I don't know if they'll be time when I'm barrelling across state lines on my way to the game.

2. Darrelle Revis. With two highlight reel interceptions in his first two playoff games, there is no doubting that No. 24 is the breakout star of this year’s Super Bowl tournament. He’s added Vincent Jackson (and Antonio Gates, too) to his trophy case. Revis is like a Predator who decided the most dangerous game on this planet is NFL wide receivers. He has systematically skinned them alive and moved on. Quietly. Methodically. Without mercy or animosity. Next up? Reggie Wayne. Yeah, that guy is not likely to make it back to the chopper. In the first meeting of these two teams in Week 16, Revis held Wayne to 33 yards on 3 catches over 7 targets into the third quarter.

(I came across this tremendous image over at but am not sure who created it)

3. Gregg Williams. There’s no doubt that the onetime highest-paid collegiate athlete and perenially underachieving Saints running back Reggie Bush had his long-awaited breakout game on Saturday afternoon against the Cardinals and that Drew Brees' and company moved the ball at will (did they really even need the flea flicker?). That offense is ridonkulous. But the reason that this year's Sainters are competing in next week's NFC Championship is because of what new Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams has done with Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper and the rest of the unit. The Saints got 39 takeaways during the regular season, most in the NFL, with 26 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. This left them at +14 in the all-important turnover differential statistic after finishing -4 in 2008. Williams' unit specializes in QB pressure and ball hawking, which makes them a perfect fit for the pass-crazy games that this team is usually involved in.

4. Jim Caldwell. Although the Colts’ offense started slowly on Saturday night, letting the Ravens hang around deep into the second quarter, this was a shellacking by the team for whom, should they have lost, the obituary was already written by kick off. Had the Colts not found their footing and won this game then everyone would be calling for the head of the Coach Caldwell and perhaps even the higher ups in the club's front office. Standing at 14-0 entering Week 16 of the season, the Colts had a chance at perfection. They also had the wobbly Jets coming to town and the woeful Bills waiting for them in Week 17. The perfect regular season seemed there for the taking. But Caldwell didn't take it. He didn't want it. He pulled Peyton Manning and other key players in the second half of a close (even though most people ignore this) game with the Jets. Rex Ryan's club seized the opening and ran away with the win and the Colts' chance at perfection. Indignation rose up like a tidal wave around the country at Caldwell's lack of ambition and this wave surely would have consumed him had his team lost to Ray Lewis and the Ravens. Alas, not even the egregious favoritism of the referees can distract from the high-quality game that the Colts played. Yes, Ed Reed's twin picks could have, perhaps should have, kept the game competitive longer, they were never going to put Baltimore over the top. Even without former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, the Colts defense was flying around the field, impressing perhaps even more than the club's highly-touted offense. Up next? Those very same Jets that many thought they should have quashed in Week 16.

5. Sidney Rice. Yes, the Vikings' demolition of the Cowboys was the re-coronation of the denim-adorned Gunslinger. It was the validation of Vikings GM and bald-and-bearded coach Brad Childress for eschewing Tavaris Jackson (and, to a certain extent, Adrian Peterson) for the wealthy, self-agrandizing man who would probably give you complimentary jorts for your birthday rather than drop a dime on you. And, perhaps most importantly, the Vikings' run made it clear to me why Prince is the "Purple One" – obviously a childhood in Minnesota gave him a notion of purple as a masculine color that never would have materialized elsewhere. Would he be the Orange One if he grew up in Cincy? But, I digress. Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice had a heckuva ballgame in Favrespeak. His speed, his potentially-illegal block-fall-fakeout route and his soft hands have made him a bonafide No. 1 option this year. A state champion in hoops and football while in high school, Rice flashed supreme athleticism in reeling in three touchdown catches and 141 yards on just six catches.

Sixth Man. Rex Ryan’s Postgame Address. Aside from giving plenty of well-deserved credit to the Chargers team that he’d just vanquished, Ryan said two things that stood out to me in his postgame remarks to the press. The first was his apology to Jets fans for getting so conservative after taking the lead. This mea culpa gives me confidence about the Jets chances in a tight game in Indy. With a late lead thanks to Shonn Greene's explosive up-the-gut touchdown run, Ryan shut down. Temporarily. His conservative calls on both sides of the ball, reminded me of former Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer’s approach the last time these two teams tangled in the postseason. In 2005, Marty kept handing the ball to LT for short gains and his defense went to prevent. Chad Pennington and the Jets kept playing aggressively (well, at least, for them) and won the game in OT. Given his brash personality, I was surprised to see Ryan shrink in the face of his team's lead. But by going for it on the game-ending fourth-and-one play, he ended the game on his terms. And his statement to us fans shows that he really does get it. He went for the win instead of hoping to protect against a loss.

As much as his recognition of his scared coaching was enlightening, the comment that meant the most was “Woo! If that wasn't a New York Jet win right there” to open up his postgame remarks to the press. Ryan and his players have used the phrase "Jets Football" a lot lately. To them it's a proper noun. A style. An attitude. A legacy. And it’s something distinct from the “same ol' Jets refrain that sports radio and the scribes at the tabloids are used to stuffing down our throats. With 18 games under his sizeable belt, Ryan and his staff have changed the culture of this organization. The players believe in ways that they haven't since Bill Parcells was in town. And the fans do, too.

And, if his postgame presser wasn't remarkable enough then there's this video of his speech to his players in the locker room after the game.

Benched. Public Bettors. There are two types of bettors. There are professional bettors who rake in money on college basketball games only shown on ESPNU and put money down on NFL games the minute the lines are set on Sunday night and then maybe once again after the line has moved thanks to the rest of us. Then there are the “public.” This is the rest of us. We’re the ones that bet based on sports talk radio storylines and Q Rating. Most importantly, the rest of us tend to bet heavily on favorites, especially on a handful of “public” teams. These teams include the Cowboys, Steelers, Giants, Patriots and Bears according to Chad Millman, ESPN The Magazine's Vegas correspondent. While the public tends to bet late in the week and on the favorite, the wise guys, or sharps, tend to bet in two ways: They bet the initial spread and then they play against/with the public money that the rest of us lay down.

A look at the fluctuations of the Jets @ Chargers spread this week exemplifies the way this works. Most Vegas oddsmakers opened the line at Chargers -7.5 points. The Chargers were favored by even more points at a few offshore books. The early money from the professional bettors came in on the Jets who were getting slightly more than a touchdown. This early money moved the line down to Jets +7 (which is the same as Chargers -7) points across the board early in the week. The spread stuck at a touchdown for the rest of the week. That’s where it stood on Sunday morning when I left for the gym. When I came back, after I went shopping for ingredients for my gametime chili, I checked and saw that the line had shot all the way up to Jets +9 points in the matter of a few hours. This means that millions of dollars had recently been bet on the Chargers and the odds were becoming even more favorable for the Jets as fans around the country had watched the home favorite run away with wins in all the other games. Now, the Jets just needed to stay within 9 points to cover. Although earlier in the week I'd considered betting San Diego at -7 there was no way I could pass up on the Jets at +9. I wasn't sure they could win outright but I felt like they would surely keep it within 9 points. And, there is also the unwritten rule that whenever the public wagers so heavily on one team late in the week that the other team will come out on top. This is the sort of axiom that Bill Simmons harps on consistently*.
(Which means as often as it's convenient for whatever axe he is grinding at the time.)

Monday Mudita

Although Shonn Greene's long touchdown run provided the Jets' winning margin midway through the fourth quarter, this Mark Sanchez touchdown throw on 3rd down at the 2-yard line at the start of the fourth was the offensive must-have play of the game for Gang Greene. Everyone trusted the rookie out of Iowa, Thomas Jones and the Jets' offensive line to come up with a rushing score at some point. That was what the Jets were dialing up. Again. And again. It's what the team and the opponent were counting on. That run was a long time coming. The X-factor was the game-changing pass play. The Jets needed to stop the Chargers from converting such a play and the Jets needed Sanchez to come up with one of his own. Jets Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer put Sanchez in motion to his right on this third down. Sanchez has shown himself remarkably comfortable throwing on the run this year. And as the rookie out of USC (who had been a spectator at a playoff game at this stadium just last year) approached the sideline, he fired a knee-high laser to Keller, who came back into a hole in the rear corner of the end zone. Keller went to the ground, catching the ball unmolested as he fell. TOUCHDOWN!!!!! The window Sanchez threw that ball into was too small even for the diminutive Darren Sproles to jump out of after such a heartrending loss. And, for what it's worth, the way that the Jets spied Sproles on screens was the unsung defensive move of the game.

If you stick with this highlight into the second minute then you're going to see some damn fine sports mudita. Crawford, the rest of the Atlanta Hawks, and the fan's in attendance on Friday night are elated after he hits this game-winning shot against the Suns. Crawford is the longest-tenured NBA player without a playoff appearance and he is well on his way to the postseason tourney right now. The longtime Knickerbocker (which explains his dubious streak) took over this game in the last half minute and secured a miracle come-from-behind win on national television.

Monday Morning Schadenfreude

Friday, January 15, 2010

Viewers Still Dig It

This bit of programming on ESPN Classic at the end of the week that retired slugger Mark McGwire admitted his long-suspected use of steroids during his record-setting career is either cynically opportunistic or just a phenomenal coincidence. Either way, it shows that viewers still do dig the longball.

You have to wonder if the creators of this classic Nike ad wanted to add a scene of Glavine and Maddux shooting each up in their workout montage. Is this deleted scene on file somewhere?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hot Hands, Heavy Hearts

There were two heartstring-tugging human interest stories but just one game-winning shot.

Philadelphia center Samuel Dalembert was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in May 1981. Since Tuesday, his hometown has lay in ruins - bloodstained, smoldering - after a devastating 7.0 earthquake struck 16 miles from the city center. Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands were injured or killed within minutes of the quake near the Haitian capitol. And each hour that passes sees the death toll rise. The Presidential Palace collapsed. The UN Headquarters collapsed, giving the organization its largest-ever loss of life. The nation is torn asunder making it even harder for relief workers to arrive. Haiti is an impoverished nation whose growth has been hamstrung by France, the United States and the rest of the First World since it became the first independent nation in Latin America in 1804 and the first free black republic in the entire world. By the time the Knicks and Sixers took the floor at the Wachovia Center on Wednesday night, Dalembert had been in touch with his father and one of his sisters in terror-stricken Haiti.

Dalembert, in his seventh year in the NBA out of Seton Hall, has been charitable with the riches that his size and skill have earned him. He's tried to help those less fortunate then he, especially in his home country. But he had been unable to secure a flight to Haiti in the 24 hours since the quake and was at the center circle to take the tip against Jared Jeffries. Dalembert directed the tip to a teammate and then quickly scored the first points of the game. He scored 10 first-quarter points and grabbed seven boards. With season averages of 7.2 points and 9 caroms per game coming in, Dalembert was easily playing the best he has all year. Yet, the 7ers were trailing, 30-26, after one quarter.

And, that's because the other guy on the floor with a heavy heart (or at least the other guy with a well-publicized reason for being upset) was playing pretty damn well, too. David Lee, whose grandfather passed away on Tuesday night, opened up 4 for 5 from the floor and paced the Knicks' hot start with 8 points and four boards of his own. The rest of the Knicks came out on fire, too. Which was heartening after the poor shooting in the previous loss at Oklahoma City. When it rains it pours. Even Jeffries scored six early points. Jeffries' points represented the opportunistic way the team was playing, reminiscent of what the OKC did to them a few nights earlier. They were moving the ball fluidly. Like water, ever forward through the cracks in the defense, always path of least resistance even if that wasn't the "play."

For all the Knicks hot shooting, though, they were ahead by just two scores after one quarter. In the second period, the game turned Philly's way. Two things changed on the floor. Former All-Star Elton Brand checked in for Philly with the second unit and looked to assert himself. Gosh. Jee. Golly. Remember when this guy was one of the dominant power forwards in the game out West? And, now, just one major free-agent deal later, he is the odd fit on a run-and-gun second unit for a second division club in the East. And as incongruous as the veteran Brand seemed with the young, up-tempo second string, the marriage yielded a lead for the home side.

Thanks to some assertive play of their own, Harrington and Gallo were able to pull the Knicks even, 40-40, with five minutes to go in the first half. The Knicks have been undone on this trip by not being able to finish quarters (or start them...) and I thought they needed to finish this half strong against a team that can be had. With a chance to go 2-for-1 under a minute to secure the lead, Gallo grabs a board, sees a lane, goes coast to coast and just misses an acrobatic layup attempt. Actually it was out of control. It would have been "acrobatic" had he scored. But he didn't. Philly kept inching ahead. The Knicks needed stops and luck to be tied at the half.

Iverson looked rejuvenated after the break, scoring Philly's first few points in the third before passing the torch to rookie Jrue Holiday, who continues to look the more NBA-ready player than Knicks rookie Jordan Hill, despite being selected after Hill was off the board.The teams remained neck and neck into the fourth. But the Knicks seemed to be the one standing on their toes to stay level. Going behind. Pulling even. Going behind. Pulling even.

The hingepoint of the game was the fourth foul on Dalembert, late in the third, with Philly leading, 66-60. He was affecting the game more than any player on the court. More than Lee, who had tapered off after a hot start. More than Rodney Carney who had started to heat up from outside for Philly. More than AI who was playing fairly passively and didn't seem to have an answer for the Knicks zone defense. More than Andre Iguodalo, who barely seemed to be playing at all no matter how much he was on the court. Without Dalembert controlling the middle, the Knicks seemed to play with a sense of urgency they've been lacking on this three-game road swing since the opening period in Houston. Now, they were the team that was up and then even. Going ahead and then even into the middle of the fourth. That is, right up until Dalembert came back into the game and Marreese Speights got hot and looked to take over the endgame (with a little help from his friend Carney). Any confidence that the Knicks picked up in Dalembert's absence seemed to about to be undone by timely shooting from the home team.

The Knicks trailed, 86-90, with 1:17 to play. Wilson Chandler dropped in a six footer. Plus the harm. One point game. The game ticks past the one-minute mark as Jeffries controls the rebound off an Iverson miss from point blank range. The game tocks beneath 50 seconds as Duhon methodically brings the ball up the floor. The clock reads 45 seconds as Lee catches the ball 15 feet deep in the corner. It passes 44 seconds as Lee sets himself to shoot. It shows 43 when the scorekeeper adds two points to the Knicks total. After Lee's corner two, the Knicks have inched in front, 91-90. Without missing a beat, the Sixers take the ball out from under their own rim and get it to Speights for a short jumper. Good. Philly leads, 92-91. New York timeout.

Trailing, 92-91, with 26 seconds to play, the Knicks come out of the timeout with a play called. In the past, the play would have involved Stephon Marbury penetrating, tucking the ball in the crook of his well-muscled arm and getting to the rim to shoot, be fouled or hand off a pass to Eddy Curry at the rim. More recently, the play would have been to get the ball to Jamal Crawford to let him whittle away the seconds with high dribbles beyond the arc only to loft a rainbow jumper towards the rim at the last second. On Tuesday, the ball was quickly gotten to Lee from Duhon. Then no. 42 backed in towards the rim. He spun. Defenders collapsing on him, reaching for the ball, like lonely spinsters grasping for bride's bouquet during the wedding reception. Lee got the ball up onto the rim. It seemed too strong. It bounced. Moving across the mouth of the goal. Looking like it was going to roll right off the far side. But it went up, not out, and then fell through with 14 seconds left. Thanks to back-to-back clutch hoops by Lee, the Knicks led, 93-92. Philadelphia Timeout.

With the game in the balance, the Sixers looked to get the lengthy Speights (and not either player with the initials AI) a look close to the rim but Lee (with some good help defense) smothered him. The ball was kicked out of the post to an on-the-move Iverson who swung it to Carney, who'd been killing the Knicks from deep earlier. Carney lofted a three. One Second. It misses! Buzzer. Whether it had to do with his grandfather (who he credited for keeping his game-winning shot on the rim long enough to roll in) or just the heat of the moment, Lee's fire after the buzzer sounded got me amped up. Even though he's on a one-year deal and might not be back he is taking these games personally. And I like it.