Tag Archives: sports

Bike Snob

I don’t own a bike but I consider myself a cyclist I guess. I mean, I commute a lot for work and and run errands on a Divvy bike and I did a 30 mile ride last year on a borrowed bike (trained with multi-park-n-go Divvy rides). So that’s my cyclist street cred, where do I stand bicycle nation? Continue reading

Unbeatable

I was there for Notre Dame football’s national championship in 1988. I was my senior year though, so I had bigger fish to fry. After reading this book, I realized that I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I could have. At times, this book made me feel almost like an outsider; I didn’t know half of what went on. Continue reading

Straight Outta LA

So these 30 for 30 things by ESPN are showing up on Netflix streaming. I was just flipping through the documentaries and Straight Outta LA popped up. Despite my hatred for the Worldwide Leader, I do love these sports documentaries, but I haven’t seen many of them. I hit play on this one thinking I’d check it out and I checked it out for an hour (I watched it all, yes). This is where you realize that not having cable doesn’t exempt you from becoming a TV-watching zombie. Continue reading

A Drive Into the Gap

A friend told me once, “I like to keep my money in my ’hood.” He was referencing his propensity to focus his dining-out experiences in about a mile radius of his house. This struck me as a pretty cool idea so I’ve started adopting it, even for non-food items. Continue reading

Brave Dragons

I read one or two pieces of basketball nonfiction per year. This book is a mix of basketball and current affairs. It’s the story of a year in the life of the Shanxi Brave Dragons basketball team with occasional diversions into Chinese politics, history, and culture. Basketball is a great vehicle to give the reader a glimpse of the inner workings of China because it takes something distinctly American, something we can relate to, and charts its integration into Chinese culture.

The author, a foreign correspondent for the NYT, is basketball fan/Pulitzer prize co-winner Jim Yardley (stationed in China at the time, now in India I think). The team owner of the Brave Dragons, Boss Wang, gave Yardley insider access to the team as they tried to dig themselves out of the cellar of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) by hiring an American coach named Bob Weiss.

It’s been a decade since Yao Ming first entered the NBA so you may have the feeling that basketball is kind of advanced in China, that maybe it’s free of corruption and played in shiny new stadiums like the ones we saw in the Beijing Olympics. Ah, no. There’s plenty of corruption and anything shiny in the stadiums eventually becomes dingy from all the cigarette smoke.

Basketball is managed by the state, like most things in China, and they start the managing early. Here’s what happens with kids:

The winnowing tool is the X‑ray machine. In elementary school, children undergo medical tests that include a scan of their skeletal structure, with special attention paid to their wrist bones. Doctors examine the distance between the developing bones, and that distance provides a projection for future physical growth. Kids deemed likeliest to grow the tallest are encouraged to attend government sports schools, where coaches will steer them toward certain sports, like basketball. Other kids, the ones showing narrower spaces in the bone structure of their wrists, continue attending schools focused on academics, many of which offer no team sports whatsoever. (Kindle loc. 411–15)

If you’re lucky enough to make it to the CBA, you’ll get a place to lay your head, practice your craft, and hang out with plenty of cool people:

The Chinese players slept inside a three-story concrete dormitory painted burnt orange. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were taken in a canteen on the first floor. The gym was an old warehouse, as high as a barn and constructed with sheet metal. (Kindle loc. 570–72)

But man, these guys are so thankful to be playing the game. The work hard and don’t complain. In fact, they have an overriding feeling that the only way they can compete internationally is to outwork the competition because they feel that they are genetically inferior to the rest of the world. The Brave Dragons coach, Liu Tie, tried to explain this to the author and the conversation became uncomfortable quickly.

I realized we were having a strange conversation, or at least a conversation that would run roughshod over political correctness parameters in the United States. Garrison had been helping with some interpretation, and he rolled his eyes when Liu digressed onto the kung fu warriors. Yet nothing that Liu had said was considered outside mainstream thought in China. Even as the rest of the world regarded China as a rising power, as the country most likely to dominate this century, most Chinese regarded themselves as genetically deficient, at least individually. Mobilizing the masses, not inspiring individuals, had always been the priority of the Chinese leaders. The X-rays and bone tests conducted on Chinese boys like Pan Jiang and Big Sun were a systematic response rooted in assumptions of physical inferiority. No country on earth believed in Darwin more than China. (Kindle loc. 903–909)

Wow, it’s a whole society that won’t accept no for an answer, that’s ready to do anything it takes to dominate the world. Yardley also spent time in India and has this observation:

Ask an Indian intellectual in New Delhi why the capital’s libraries are mediocre or their infrastructure was poorly built and he might shrug and say, “We Indians are not especially good at that.” The Chinese, or at least their leaders, could not accept such a lack of ambition or national will; for China to reclaim its place in the world, China must be great at every endeavor. Yet the price was that daily life was a grinding stone. Everyone worked hard, often separated from family, as rebuilding and rebranding Chinese greatness was a round-the-clock enterprise. (Kindle loc. 4244–48)

So will China ever be a power in basketball like they are in manufacturing? I don’t know, the sport just may take too much creativity and artistry, things that can’t be mandated by the state very well. And each team needs a star, or two. The stats are pretty formidable, you don’t win without a superstar, which is antithetical to the Chinese collective way.

Bob Weiss had an impossible time installing any sort of American style into the Brave Dragons. In fact, after only a week he was demoted to a “consultant” and replaced by Liu Tie, his assistant. Then he was reinstated, then he was moved back to a consultant. It was quite a soap opera. But Weiss and his wife fell in love with China.

Weiss wanted to meet Prada, too. Because if J. T. Prada was angling to get back to the NBA, Bob Weiss had decided he wanted to stay in China. He was having a ball. Tracy loved it. She could even imagine returning to Taiyuan for the following season, though Weiss had a harder time imagining that. He was curious about other teams, other possibilities, and Prada knew people. (Kindle loc. 4882–5)

That’s cool. Weiss seems like a good guy. Yardley paints a detailed picture of him and many other characters. He delves into the lives of players and management but doesn’t stop there. Heck, he even spends a holiday weekend with the teams DJ.

I love basketball. I have a few basketball books queued up. This Thunder vs Heat series is awesome. I gotta get back to it.

West by West

That’s the promo from the Jerry West segment on Real Sports a few months ago. I saw it and immediately bought his new book. It’s an auto-biography without a lot of cheer. He’s a tortured soul who’s unmitigated success in all things basketball hasn’t been able to stop terrible bouts of depression. It made for a tough read at times.

Basketball was my first sports love. To me, it’s about Magic’s ear-to-ear smile, MJ’s fist pump after the buzzer-beater over Ehlo, Larry diving for a loose ball, and LeBron clapping rosin in the air at the scorer’s table. It’s fantastic. It’s a spectacle, but a spectacle with substance. I still contend that these guys are the greatest athletes in the world. Period.

If you’re not careful, this book can suck that spectacle right out of the sport. West admits in the credits that he wasn’t writing a basketball book necessarily. In my view, this is a form of therapy for him.

Let’s talk about this guy and basketball. He is the NBA. I’m serious, he really is the NBA. He’s the guy on the logo. He was a great player for the Lakers (check his stats) and a great GM for the Lakers (think showtime and Kobe/Shaq). The guy threw down some amazing numbers. He then went on to have a successful, albeit short, stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s achieved about everything you can achieve in the sport.

But it’s been a labor for the guy. He had an ugly childhood. His dad was abusive and he lost a beloved brother to the Korean War. These things, along with growing up on the brink of poverty in rural West Virginia, beat him down, but also made him hungry to make something of himself, to seek out a better life. He was, and remains, an intensely competitive individual, which probably contributed greatly to his success on the court. Off the court, his self-confessed personality flaws haven’t been much of a hindrance. Here’s how he describes his demeanor.

I am often painfully awkward or detached when I greet someone, including family, and today was no exception. I am not very demonstrative. I hardly ever hug. I rarely do it with my own children, or with Karen. It doesn’t mean I am not glad to see them; it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It’s the same as not easily picking up the phone to call someone; it’s just how I am. And much of that, I am convinced, has to do with the almost complete lack of nurturing I received as a child. Cookie refers to the home we grew up in as “the ice house,” but that isn’t even the half of it. (page 18)

You can see that he may not be very likable. He also described instances like this, which gives him kind of an unpleasant vibe:

… Aside from the fact I eat very quickly, I am also particular about what I eat (as I am about what I wear). One time I went to a little Italian restaurant in Los Angeles and I ordered a caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes. When the salad came out, I could see right away the tomatoes were not heirlooms and told the waiter that. He assured me that they were and I insisted they weren’t. So he went back into the kitchen and checked with the chef and came back to report that I was right. (page 110)

Let’s face it, you can’t get to know athletes while they are playing. They can cover up a host of foibles and flaws during their playing years because they really just have to go out every day and score.

The post-playing life is a little different. Some athletes are extroverted and intelligent, so they go on to be announcers. West, however, was introverted and intelligent, so he went into management. His success in management was about equal to his success as a player, so he’s had the media spotlight on him for much longer than the average athlete. That’s had to have weighed on him.

So he’s over 70 and reflecting on his life, which spans almost the whole history of the NBA, in an honest and forthright manner. That’s what old people do. They say what’s on their mind and don’t care so much about the backlash. I have to believe this was a wonderful release for the guy.

He cuts loose. Well, as loose as he can cut, I guess.

I do like his sensibilities. He’s thoughtful and it felt throughout like he was being very honest. Here’s his take on a few things and some of his ruminations:

On the average West Virginian:

What I don’t understand is that some of these coal miners make sixty to a hundred thousand dollars a year and yet their first impulse is often to get a new car. I am loath to tell other people how to live, but I feel strongly that if their first instinct would be to embrace the enduring importance of education, their children would be better off. (page 28)

On Tiger Woods:

I decided to reach out to Tiger because my sense was that very few people were. I sent him a letter and a copy of The Noticer, a little inspirational book that urges one to keep a larger perspective no matter what kind of crisis is being faced. … To this day, I don’t know if Tiger ever received the book, but if he did, I hope he read it. (page 53)

On racism, playing in the Boston Garden, and the fact that the Celtics play second fiddle to the Bruins:

I, on the other hand, always seemed to be a fan favorite. Part of the reason, I guess, was the way I played—giving my all each and every night—and part of it was no doubt because I was white. (page 128)

On Magic:

Earvin asked me all sorts of questions when he first came to the team, and I did my best to answer all of them. I liked that he didn’t come in with the attitude that he knew everything. He wanted to know “how to play in the NBA” and what the essential difference was between the pros and college. (page 151)

On Phil Jackson:

The difference was this: Pat and I were close and had a long history together; Phil and I had no relationship. None. He didn’t want me around, and he had absolutely no respect for me—of that, I have no doubt. (page 180)

On Wilt:

As for all Wilt’s claims of having slept with twenty thousand women? That is such a joke, because he was with me a lot of the time. When his sister Barbara would stop in unannounced to see him, she would go searching for any sign that a female had been there, but she could never find anything, not an article of clothing, not a photograph, nothing. (page 188)

On Kobe, referencing “the encounter with the woman in Colorado in the summer of 2003”:

I am not naïve about things like this, but to this day I feel he was set up. (page 198)

On Shaq, referencing the unveiling of the Jerry West statue in February 2011:

In the audience, Shaquille O’Neal, at the time a member of the Boston Celtics, if you can believe it, mouthed the words I love you, and I did the same in response. That he came meant as much, if not more, to me than anything. (page 304)

So that’s what you get, unvarnished, heartfelt, and kind of depressing. But it is an important glimpse into the NBA and a deep dive into a guy who’s always been kind of a mystery.

Born to Run

I saw this article in the NYT during the run-up to the New York City Marathon. It’s a story about barefoot running. I was so smitten by this idea that I bought the book and have started making the conversion to a forefoot strike. Heck, I even announced on Facebook that I was making the conversion. Now I have to do it.

I’m a runner of sorts. I do the occasional half-marathon and running is my number one form of cardio. However, it never feels great. Sure, it feels good, at times, but never great. I certainly never get the runner’s high and I think it’s because I usually have leg and foot pain. I’m not talking about acute injuries like pulled muscles, ripped tendons, or strained ligaments. I’m talking about general pain in my achilles, hips, and/or plantar muscle that have forced me to stop running for a few months after my last two half-marathons.

This needs to change. I’m ready to experiment.

So I’m taking a page out of this book. As I write this, I’m a month into a program comprised mostly of shoeless running-in-place in my living room with a goal of changing my running style. I’ve started from zero and will hopefully be able to run a mile or so outside by March 1st. The ultimate goal is that this new running technique will provide a life full of injury-free marathons and half-marathons.

But enough about me, let’s talk about this book. The author, Christopher MacDougall, faced running injuries much more acute than mine. He’s a writer with big-media type of resources (NYT, Men’s Health), so he set out to find a solution. Along the way, he discovered that there was enough material directly and indirectly related to his running discoveries to write a book about them.

His research sent him down a path to the Copper Canyon in Mexico and an indigenous people who are arguably the best runners in the world. They’re called the Tarahumara and they run like the wind in bare feet or in simple sandals that have no heal support. This book is mostly about them, but it’s also a wide-ranging, wonderful story about running in general. There a few distinct themes.

First of all, and most important to me, there’s a lot of running science in the book that advocates a forefoot landing. The theme being: Nike could be evil. MacDougall basically says that Nike and Bill Bowerman did more harm than good when they invented the modern running shoe with the cushioned heal. It wasn’t until MacDougall ditched the cushioned heal and started going minimalist that he was able to run injury-free.

Before the invention of a cushioned shoe, runners through the ages had identical form: Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Frank Shorter, and even Emil Zatopek all ran with backs straight, knees bent, feet scratching back under their hips. They had no choice: the only shock absorption came from the compression of their legs and their thick pad of midfoot fat. (page 180)

Do a search on YouTube about barefoot running and you’ll get a lot of stuff. Here is a video on running form by the guy who helped train MacDougall. The book has a few chapters devoted to technique, diet, and training. It’s certainly not a how-to book, but has enough information to get you started.

Secondly, besides being great runners, the Tarahumara are an amazing people who deserve our respect and our help. The theme being: The Tarahumara can tell us a lot about ourselves and educate us on how to live in the modern world. This part of the story is told in parallel with the story of a mythical figure called Caballo Blanco (white horse), who MacDougall met while researching this story. Caballo Blanco is a US citizen who has been living in and round the Tarahumara for years. It’s a human interest story and you have to stick with it because MacDougall bounces around a lot, but it has an awesome conclusion.

The Tarahumara live right. They are in great health, have virtually no violence, and party like rock stars. That’s something to shoot for.

Just like the rest of us, the Tarahumara have secret desires and grievances, but in a society where everyone relies on one another and there are no police to get between them, there has to be a way to satisfy lusts and grudges. What better than a booze-fest? Everyone gets ripped, goes wild, and then, chastened by bruises and hangovers, they dust themselves off and get on with their lives. (page 187)

Thirdly, the story of Caballo Blanco gets weaved into a history of the ultra-marathon movement. The theme being: Ultra-marathons are fun and just about anyone can do them. I do mean anyone. In fact, at the ultra-marathon distance, there is very little advantage in being male or being young. It’s a fascinating read and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I hope to be able to do one some day. The personalities involved in this movement are infectious.

Finally, the deepest and most affecting point relates to the linkage between running and humanity. The theme being: Without running we may not exist. Take 15 minutes out of your day and watch this:

Running is wired into human beings. Heck, it could be directly responsible for our survival. Our ability to sweat, allowing us to cool ourselves and effectively run all day, gives us dominion over all mammals. We can run down an antelope for food because they’re going to conk out before we do, it’s our natural advantage. There’s science behind this, here’s Dr. Dan Lieberman from Harvard:

To run an antelope to death, Lieberman determined, all you have to do is scare it into a gallop on a hot day. “If you keep just close enough for it to see you, it will keep sprinting away. After about ten or fifteen kilometers’ worth of running, it will go into hyperthermia and collapse.” Translation: if you can run six miles on a summer day then you, my friend, are a lethal weapon in the animal kingdom. (page 227)

But that’s the physical aspect of running. Running is also etched into our emotional well-being. Think about this.

Three times America has seen long distance-running skyrocket, and it’s always in the midst of a national crisis. (page 11)

MacDougall is talking about the big increases in running that happened after the Great Depression, in the early 70s (after Vietnam, race riots, a criminal president, etc…), and after 9/11. He goes on:

… Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe there’s a trigger in the human psyche, a coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching. In terms of stress relief and sensual pleasure, running is what you have in your life before sex. The equipment and desire come factory installed; all you have to do is let ’er rip and hang on for the ride. (page 12)

This stuff just fires me up to run. I say that as I sit here with some foot and ankle pain after a forefoot strike barefoot running session this morning. Hopefully it’s just my body acclimating, not rebelling.

I really enjoyed this book. I encourage you to check out MacDougall’s blog and some pics from the climactic race at the end of the book. I strongly suggest reading the book first, it will make the build-up to the climactic race quite exciting.

The Marinovich Project

Wow, I remember Robo QB well. I recall my high school buddy, the only USC fan in Findlay, talking up Todd Marinovich. My buddy was always ahead of the game on college football recruiting and he hated the Big Ten. He would tote out stories about Marinovich as proof of how much the Pac 10 would supposedly dominate the Big Ten in the future. This was maybe 1984, when Marinovich was probably a high school sophomore.

In 1989 I saw Marinovich play live. I attended the Notre Dame vs USC game that year on a rainy Saturday with my wife. I can picture  it like it was yesterday. We had two tix in the north end zone and it was a great game. Marinovich had three TDs (I don’t remember that stat specifically, but I verified it). ND won and I can remember thinking, “This kid is going to be good.”

He was good, but he was a serious headcase. Remember though, this guy was raised by his dad to be a QB beginning at age four, so despite the head problems (and the pot and booze), he was able to be relatively successful. His dad was one of the first strength and conditioning coaches in the NFL (Raiders) and used all (and I do mean all) of their free time to train Todd for the quarterback position.

By 1992 Marinovich had achieved all of his dreams, he was the Raider’s starter and had made his dad proud, but he still wasn’t happy. He felt empty. He says:

If you’re good at something, does that mean you were meant to do it?

The Raiders cut him shortly thereafter for failing a drug test. He was a recreational drug user, but soon after being cut he became a full on heroin addict. He told his side of the story to ESPN while sitting on the beach on an overcast day, wearing a baseball hat without a logo, talking directly to the camera. I was moved.

It’s a familiar story in sports and eerily reminiscent of a similar story in the golf world. When Marinovich made those comments above, the first name that popped into my head was David Duval. Here’s what Duval said after winning a major (from Breaking the Slump, by Jimmy Roberts):

“Vijay (Singh), Mike (Weir), and a bunch of family members were on the plan,” remembers Moore. “After awhile, everybody else fell asleep, and David and I were drinking champagne from the Claret Jug. I remember as we were landing, the sun was coming up, and we were pulling into Toronto and David says to me: ‘I would have thought it would feel better than this.’”

Duval termed it his “existentialist moment.”

“I started to think: ‘That’s it? That’s all there is?’” he recalls.

Unlike Marinovich, after reaching the top of the mountain, Duval’s life didn’t spin out of control into a drug-fueled cesspool, but his golf game went into the tank. Like Marinovich though, the trip back down from the mountaintop led to Duval meeting the woman of his dreams, starting a family, and coming to terms with a family trauma from his childhood (Duval’s brother drowned). In both cases, the ending is somewhat uplifting.

Marinovich is now an artist in Southern Calinfornia and has a wife and two kids. His art looks like it’s mostly portraits themed in sports and entertainment. He’s been clean since 2009 and has come to terms with his childhood and his dad. Todd and his dad continue to collaborate on art projects to this day and are actively involved in each other’s lives.

This was a solid sports doc by ESPN. I don’t like ESPN and I try to avoid the world wide leader for anything but live events. I rarely watch Sportscenter, never go to ESPN.com, don’t have the app, and haven’t watched Gameday in years. But they’re difficult to avoid if you’re sports fan. They’ve done some wonderful work on these sports documentaries and this one was well worth the 90-minute investment.

That being said, I’m always on the lookout for the spin. The cynic in me asks questions. Did ESPN sugarcoat the relationship with his dad to make it more touching? Marinovich’s website just went up; is this all about marketing?

I’m choosing to believe in the genuineness mostly because of Marinovich’s solemn and even-keeled retelling of things. He drew me in with his apparent humbleness. Great stuff.