Friday, April 28, 2006
Why I like sports
By Bill Simmons
Recent additions to the always-expanding list ...
Reason No. 869: Clippers fans
You know how ESPN Classic shows those old Celtics games from the '70s, '80s and early '90s from time to time? Thanks to my father, I happened to be sitting in the Garden for some of them. I watched the Celtics clinch two championships in person. I attended five famous games that could be described in four words or less: Bird's steal; Henderson's steal; Magic's sky hook; Suns-Celtics, Triple-OT; and Dominique-Larry. I have witnessed every possible playoff situation you can imagine.
Or so I thought.
Because I have never seen anything like these last two Clippers home games. They handed out red "Clipper Nation" shirts for everyone before Game 1; even stranger, just about everyone put them on. They handed out Thundersticks to all the fans; even stranger, everyone used them during the game. One of those overbearing DJ-types with a microphone kept prancing around the court during the pregame warm-ups, screaming, "Let me hear it! Let's show America who has the best fans in sports!" And every time he prodded them, the crowd would stand and cheer on command. When the game started, people were doling out standing O's during layups that made the score 6-4. It was an impossible pace. Like watching somebody throwing down shots on their 21st birthday, then throwing down some more, and then some more.
"They're gonna be dead by the third quarter," I told the Sports Gal.
Sure enough, they were. Dead as a doornail. When the Nuggets rallied from a 16-point deficit in the second half, the crowd was too worn out to respond. Somehow, the Clips pulled out a win. For Game 2, they didn't hand out shirts and kept the Thundersticks to a minimum. The crowd paced themselves better, saving some extra energy for the second half. In a way, it was endearing. Like watching a baby learn how to stand or something. They only messed up one time: when they started The Wave during Radmanovic free throws in the second half, which may have been one of the five most humiliating moments of my life. On the other hand, I had never seen something like that happen at a playoff game before. And I thought I had seen everything.
One moment stood out though: In the second half of Game 2, Shaun Livingston picked off an errant pass and streaked toward the basket, right past Marcus Camby, who seemed to be sizing him up for a block. As they approached the basket, Camby timed his jump to smother Livingston's layup, only the kid exploded past him and rammed the ball home with a vicious dunk, practically causing a riot in the Staples Center. Something clicked with the crowd: They cheered and kept cheering, soaking in the moment, milking it for all its worth. And if you closed your eyes, it actually felt like a real NBA playoff game for a few seconds. Could have been the old Garden, could have been MSG, could have been Detroit, could have been anywhere. We just happened to be at a Clippers game.
See? There's hope for everybody.
Reason No. 870: Any footage of Barry Bonds from his Pittsburgh days
High comedy. Like watching Jon Favreau shovel down pasta as he fires questions to Peter Berg on "Dinner For Five," then flicking channels and seeing him about 90 pounds lighter in "Swingers."
Reason No. 871: "I always liked him!"
Nobody bails on Boston athletes faster than my dad. He's famously impatient; you could call him the Rick Pitino of fans. Just last month, he gave up on Wily Mo Pena's career in two at-bats, which turned out to be a new record even for him. Of course, this leads to the ongoing subplot where Dad is complaining about someone just as they do something good, followed by Dad quickly changing course and joking excitedly, "I always liked him! We just needed to give him a chance!"
This never fails to kill me for some reason. So during the Marathon Day game, with the Sox trying to tie the Mariners in the ninth, Mark Loretta came to the plate with a guy on first. Once Dad started griping on the phone, I actually started to feel better and better about Loretta's chances. You could feel the "I always liked him!" moment coming. For all I know, maybe Dad was trying to set it up.
This Loretta ... what does he bring to the table? Anything? Between him and Gonzalez, we have two automatic outs. Plus, we traded Mirabelli for him, and now Wakefield stinks. That was a bad trade.
I pointed out that Loretta takes a bunch of pitches, turns a killer double play and seems to be a pretty smart hitter. At the very least, he deserved a few weeks before we pushed him down the stairs, right?
"I don't know," Dad said. "I haven't seen this guy hit the ball hard once."
Next pitch: Loretta cranks a drive into the Monster seats. Ball game.
Quickly followed by ...
"I always liked him! We just needed to give him a chance!"
Reason No. 872: The Unclaimed Silver Medals
You know HBO's documentary about the USA-USSR Olympic basketball game from 1972, when all hell broke loose and Russia ended up scoring on the last play, even though they had already lost the game? One of the 47 HBO channels was airing it last week (outstanding show, by the way) and I forgot how great the ending was: They tackle the part where the U.S. team members refuse their silver medals, and then we meet some of those players today, none of whom have ever claimed their medals. That's capped off by one guy who wrote it into his will that none of his family members or descendants could ever claim his medal. We even see the will itself. And then the show ends.
Now I'm wondering if I need to rethink the "Levels of Losing." What if we dropped everything down a level -- with the "Stomach Punch" Game moving to third-worst, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series moving to second-worst, and the '72 Gold Medal Game moving into the top spot? It's one thing to get crushed; it's another thing to get crushed and become so bitter about it, the defeat affects the contents of somebody's will. Should that be one of the reasons why I like sports? Of course not. But the thought of those sleazy silver medals rotting in safety deposit boxes for decades and decades and everyone resisting the urge to claim them, or somebody remaining so ticked off that he eventually hired a lawyer to guarantee an eternity of spite for his family ... now that's fantastic.
Reason No. 873: Kobe's dunk over Nash
Hold on, wait ... I got your MVP trophy right ... HERE!
Reason No. 874: The Parish-Laimbeer no-call
They showed this game on ESPN Classic last week, the one that ends with Johnny Most screaming, "Now there's a steal by Bird, underneath to D.J. and he lays it in! The Celtics have the lead with two seconds left! Whatta play by Bird, he stole the inbounds pass! My God, this place is going crazy!!!!!!!!!" You know ... that game.
And I have written about Parish clocking Laimbeer in the first half before. Here's how I described it four years ago.
"During Game 4 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, Laimbeer had the gall to clothesline Larry Bird, causing a brawl and getting the Basketball Jesus thrown out of the game (which the Pistons ended up winning). When the series shifted to the Boston Garden for Game 5, you could actually feel the collective hatred in the crowd for [Laimbeer]. It was tangible. We wanted blood. I'm still convinced that this was the reason Robert Parish snapped and sucker-punched Laimbeer in the first half ... we practically willed the Chief to do it. I'm dead-serious. We brainwashed him. I will believe that one until the day I die. You really had to be there. It was primal."
When you watch the tape, you can hear the crowd cheering as Laimbeer writhes on the ground in pain. And you know what? I still enjoy the footage to this day. In fact, even though I own the game on DVD, if somebody is showing that game, I will always keep an eye on it, waiting for the final minute of the first half, just so I can see the normally serene Chief completely snap and pummel Laimbeer to the ground. Never gets old. It really doesn't.
But here's the crazy thing about that play: PARISH STAYED IN THE GAME! Didn't even get a technical! When you watch the replay, you can see the closest referee (Jack Madden) watching the whole altercation from 10 feet away. What does he call? Nothing! Nada! Zippo! It's the most incredible no-call in the history of sports. If it happened in the year 2006, ESPN would air emergency live episodes of "Around the Horn," "First and 10" and "The Sports Reporters" just so middle-aged white sportswriters could scream at one another about what happened. Back then? Nothing. I remember the Pistons fans complaining; everyone else in the country believed that Laimbeer got what was coming to him. And frankly? He did.
Reason No. 875: The WNBA's 10th-Anniversary Celebration
And that sentence is funny enough in itself. But we can even vote for the All-Decade team on WNBA.com! I spent a good 12 hours debating whether to e-mail John Hollinger under a fake ESPN e-mail address pretending to be an editor of our Web site, then demanding that he sift through the past 10 years of WNBA stats and prepare a 5,000-word statistical analysis for his own All-Decade team (complete with the PER stat), just to see how bummed out he would be about the request on a scale of 1 to 10. Then I decided that it was too cruel. He's busy enough.
(As for the All-Decade team ... screw it, I'm voting for Vince Carter as one of my 10 picks. Nobody can stop me.)
Reason No. 876: The Joe Thornton trade
Back in December, the struggling Bruins traded their superstar (Thornton) to San Jose for three decent guys, your classic "three quarters for a dollar" trade. By my knowledge, in the history of sports, this has never worked. Not once. The Bruins did it, anyway. So Thornton goes to San Jose, hooks himself up to the Rejuvenation Machine of Rejuvenation Machines, and the team immediately takes off and becomes a playoff contender.
(Note: I'm using the words "the team" because I have no idea what San Jose's nickname is. And frankly, I don't want to know.)
Apparently Thornton is the odds-on favorite to win the MVP, an amazing turn of events because I can't remember another instance in the history of team sports where a team traded someone during the season who ended up winning the MVP in the very same season. In 1984, Cleveland traded Rick Sutcliffe to the Cubs, then he went 16-1 and won the NL Cy Young Award. But the MVP of an entire league? Unheard of.
So why would this be a reason why I like sports? Because I stopped following the B's in the mid-'90s (slowing down for a few years, then quitting cold turkey after the Jason Allison trade, which I wrote about here) for precisely this reason: They always did just enough not to win. And even though I loved hockey once upon a time, and even though the Bruins were involved in one of the two games that ever made me cry (Game 7, 1979, Montreal), and even though I have all these NHL memories from 1976-94 that have been rendered pretty much useless, there came a point in my life where I had to make a decision: Is it worth spending 400-500 hours every year caring about a franchise that doesn't care about me, playing in a league that was becoming less interesting by the year? The answer was no.
So when something like the Thornton trade happens, I feel as relieved as a guy who broke up with some awful girl who was terrible for him in every respect, then finds out a few years later that she's now a heroin-using stripper in Atlantic City.
(In other words, phew.)
Reason No. 877: Youtube.com
Just in the past week, I watched a clip of an old Mike Tyson interview with Jim Gray where he repeatedly praises Allah, then vows to eat Lennox Lewis' children. I watched a clip of A-Rod wiping down his bat during a game in the most inflammatory way possible. I watched a montage clip of horrible Jets draft picks over the years, followed by the crazed reactions of the Jets fans as the picks were announced (did anything top the Jeff Lageman pick?). I watched a clip of an interview in which an aging Iron Sheik repeatedly vowed to, um, humiliate other wrestlers in the most emotionally scarring way possible. I watched the famous clip of Joe Namath trying to kiss Suzy Kolber. I watched the clip of the "boom goes the dynamite!" guy for the umpteenth time. I even watched the clip of Roddy Piper slamming the coconut against Jimmy Snuka's head.
So here's my question: In a million years, did you ever think this would happen? One decade ago, I didn't even have an e-mail address or know what the Internet was ... now I can watch Piper slam a coconut against Snuka's head whenever I want? What will the world be like 10 years from now? Is it possible to procrastinate for 24 hours a day? Are we headed that way?
Reason No. 878: Shaq's Godfather analogy
The one where he describes his career by comparing his three most famous teammates to Corleone brothers, with Dwyane Wade as Michael (the wisest one); Kobe as Sonny (power-hungry and impetuous), and Penny Hardaway as Fredo (dumb and weak). Just brilliant. Shaq needs his own talk show. It's becoming more and more clear.
Reason No. 879: Mariano Rivera
He's one of those guys that we never think about enough, and only because he's always there and he's always great; he's like Howard Stern or "South Park" in that way, where the consistency becomes remarkably unremarkable after awhile. In his 10th year closing and his 12th relieving, he's just as good right now as he was at any other point in his career. If 100 baseball experts started an all-time team where they could take the best 10 seasons of any player, other than Babe Ruth, Rivera would be the only mortal lock on everyone's ballots. He's been that good.
Two Saturdays ago, I watched him jog in from the bullpen to save a game against Minnesota. Luis Castillo kicked off the ninth by bouncing a pitch off home plate for a cheap infield hit. Mauer then lined a hit to left, with Castillo running on the play. For some reason, Matsui tried to throw out Castillo, allowing Mauer to move up. So, second and third, no outs. And with anyone else, you're thinking, "All right, worst-case scenario, the Twins tie it here."
Not with Rivera. Rondell White comes up with an .095 average ... three strikes later, he's done. Torii Hunter follows, tries to fight off the strikeout, fouls off a couple of pitches, and he's fighting, only you can't fight Rivera for that long ... he strikes out. Unbelievable. So Justin Morneau comes up, and just when we're thinking, "My God, I forgot how freaking great Rivera is," Morneau drops a broken-bat single between first and second for the winning runs, followed by a celebration that rivaled anything that would have happened in the playoffs. Even the announcers were flipping out. All this was missing was Cosell screaming, "Down goes Rivera! DOWN GOES RIVERA!"
Here's how you know someone is truly great: When you're shocked by their failure, that's when you know. And watching Rivera leave the mound as a loser is always shocking. Even in the year 2006.
Pretty amazing, when you think about it.
Reason No. 880: Delmon Young's Bat Toss
I just enjoy any situation that's patently cut-and-dry, and there's really nothing left to say, but the talking heads feel obligated to come up with something, leading to one of them saying in all seriousness, "you CANNOT throw your bat at an umpire." Really? You think so, Doctor?
Reason No. 881: Keeper leagues
Until this week, I didn't even know what Howie Kendrick looked like. He just kept slapping up those 2-for-4s in Salt Lake City, a name on a box score and that's all.
And normally I wouldn't care about someone who wasn't on the Red Sox, but for my AL-only fantasy team -- one of those uber-serious leagues with a 40-man roster, keepers, a rookie draft and everything else -- my tag-team partner Hench and I drafted Howie with the fourth pick in Round 1. We thought he would go second behind Brandon Wood; we even tried to move up to get him but nobody wanted to trade with us. But the No. 2 guy took Alex Gordon (we avoid Royals like the plague), and the No. 3 guy took Andy Marte (we were leery of him since the Sox and Braves traded him this winter). Good old Howie fell right into our laps.
Honestly? We would have taken him first. How many prospects consistently hit in the .380s in the minors? How many prospects hit in the .400s at spring training? How many prospects have you heard in your life get compared to Bill Madlock? Bill Madlock! That guy sprayed line drives like a tennis machine, didn't he? You can either hit or you can't. Brandon Wood might be a 40-40 guy some day, and Alex Gordon might turn into the next George Brett. Emphasis on the word "might." But every possible piece of evidence points to the fact that Howie Kendrick can consistently hit the living crap out of the ball.
Once we added him to our team (the Frozen Splinters), Hench and I started monitoring his Salt Lake box scores like proud parents. Two weeks into the season, he went 2-for-4 ... dropping his average to something like .517. Near the end of the month, he was in the .380s. Just like always. When the Angels offense kept sputtering and Hench finally sent me the "Howie got the call" e-mail on Monday, I was half-expecting it and half-delighted to get it. They said he was going to pinch-hit and DH for 10 days while some of their guys bounce back from injuries. We knew differently. Once he started slapping up those 2-for-4s, they wouldn't want to send him down. Some guys are just born to hit.
And sure, he ended up going 0-for-4 in his first game on Wednesday. But he's one of our guys now, just like Felix is one of our guys, and Papelbon, and Zumaya and Street, and even Craig Hansen when he comes up. Thanks to the most time-consuming, ridiculously comprehensive fantasy league known to man, I could be following these guys for the rest of the decade. Compare this to real baseball, where teams never stop changing and players never stop moving. On the Red Sox roster right now: only eight guys remain from October 2004 (Schilling, Manny, Ortiz, Foulke, Varitek, Nixon, Timlin and Wakefield). Within another two years, there's a good chance Big Papi might be the only one left. As a baseball fan, you can never feel too safe. If you don't believe me, check out Johnny Damon's uniform during the first inning of Monday night's Sox-Yankees game at Fenway.
Here's the thing: I don't know who will be playing for the Red Sox four years from now. But I know Felix will be in my life. And Papelbon. And Kendrick, too. That's why we call them "keepers." Say what you want about fantasy baseball fanatics, but at least we can figure out ways for our favorite guys to stick around.
Keep those 2-for-4s coming, Howie. Just another reason why I like sports.
Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.