America's Game

I’m deeply enjoying the 2010 NBA playoffs these days, and have noticed that most of the Czech guys who I play basketball with every Tuesday have a meticulous knowledge of NBA players and teams. This is interesting when you think about the fact that basketball is the only truly American game, having been invented by a Phys-Ed teacher in Springfield, MA in 1891. Compare this to baseball, a game touted as “America’s Game” that draws on European games for its rules and boasts of a “World Series” that Czechs wouldn’t be caught dead watching. (You can catch NBA playoff games on TV in specialty sports bars in Prague, and NFL is also a mainstay. Hockey, meanwhile, is considerably more popular here than it is in the U.S., probably on par with Canadian enthusiasm. Baseball, on the other hand, is an absolute blackout: no World Series, no nothing).

The speed with which the Peach Basket Game gained popularity is always striking to me, but never more so than when I show my design students a movie called The Man With A Movie Camera, an 1929 avant-garde piece of Soviet film by Dziga Vertov that captures everyday events in an aggressively abstract and non-linear manner. There’s an artsy montage of people playing sports where you see a group of Russian women engaged in some incredibly dated- and weird-looking athletic activity that you suddenly realize — wow! — is basketball. The story of how basketball permeated this nascent cultural iron curtain in the first 38 years of its existence is a job for another blog far less lazy than this one, but let’s just say it surprises me a little every time I see the film.

(Blurry Soviet female basketball scrum from The Man With A Movie Camera)

So, while I acknowledge that the sport has achieved great heights, I have a few suggestions and scenarios that I think would add interesting wrinkles:

  • Halloween pageants where teams dress up in the spirit of their team name. How much better would, say, a random Utah / San Antonio game be if involved a cultural showdown where ‘jazzmen’ maneuver against cowboys clanking around in spurs and full regalia?
  • The option to suddenly punt the basketball through upright goal posts positioned 10 yards behind the basket for 3 points
  • My plan to dress NBA coaches in players’ uniforms, following the example of baseball (further discussed here)
  • Port-a-potties positioned along the court. This came to mind when I thought about the fact that no one ever has to pee during our hour and half Tuesday pick-up games. Obviously, the reason is that we’re all running like antelopes and sweating out all the water in our bodies. But what if athletic activity massively increased – rather than decreased – the need to go? Imagine the drama and ensuing recrimination as certain players desperately peel off for ‘pit stops’ during key moments in the action, as in a marathon
  • Something involving leg warmers, berets and mimes that I haven’t fully worked out yet.

The Garage-Door Metric

I’m very much a closeted football fan: the sport appalls me on a number of levels, but invariably pulls me in as a fascinated spectator by the end of the season. The same dramatic arc replicates itself over each season: when training camps and exhibition games start up in August, it’s easy for me to scoff at the spectacle of 300-pound fatsos falling on top of each other in the blazing heat; in the deep cold of December and January, however, the game takes on a war-like gravity that neither baseball nor basketball– games that I generally have a higher regard for– can compete with. A game like last year’s NFC Championship takes you as close as any sport is going to take you to the seige of Stalingrad– there’s just nothing that compares to it. (OK, bad example in the sense that that game was played inside in a warm dome… but you get the idea.)

Given my already-conflicted status, I hate it when stories come to light like the retirement of a Redskins tackle who just revealed that he played his entire professional career with a spinal condition that put him at risk of paralysis with every blow to the head. Yuck. File this in the big, ugly, dented, misshapen bin of stories with every other guy who’s developed dementia, or heart problems, or a debilitating addiction to painkillers shortly after leaving the game. This is a sport where the average player drops dead at age 53. I feel conscience-bound to stop watching, but the siege-of-Stalingrad thing keeps pulling me back in.

The report about Chris Samuels and his spinal condition brought to mind a study I read many years ago about a medical researcher who had set out to study the physical abuse experienced by pro football players. The part that fascinated me was the weirdo metric he came up with for quantifying this abuse: the physical impact of playing pro football, he calculated, is equivalent to going to the back of your driveway and riding your bicycle full-tilt into the garage door 25 times a day from various angles. I love this. Especially the ‘from various angles’ specification. Did he actually ride his bike into his garage door to measure the impact and get his baseline unit of impact? If so, how long is his driveway? (It seems like this would potentially effect the calculation a lot.) I would like to see this garage-door metric applied to a wide range of activities and hopefully take on an obscure, puzzling non-metric name, like the bushel, peck, or knot.

The World’s Worst-Dressed Men

Some of the snow melted over this weekend, which got me looking forward to a little to spring and, of course, the start of baseball season. This evening I read a few tidbits about spring training on the Red Sox message board (which is admittedly one of the dorkiest sites on the entire Wide World of Web… you can find pages and pages of scatter graphs demonstrating some pitcher’s release point or pitch selection, for example) and learned that there’s a flap about a player wanting the same number that’s currently worn by a bench coach. This led to a hefty discussion of baseball’s unique convention of dressing managers and coaches in the same outfits worn by players, with comments like:

I think it is pretty stupid coaches still have numbers in baseball considering there isn’t a single other sport in the world that coaches wear numbers. Why does a coach care about his number?

… and this:

I don’t see how managers dressing similarly to, say, football coaches would be too detrimental.

Now, it’s true that baseball managers are the ugliest men in the world, and that the tradition of dressing them up like players only accentuates this:

And it’s clearly a dubious idea, making 70 year-old men dress up like uniforms that were (a) designed for men 50 years younger and (b) are antiquated to begin with, having been designed about 100 years ago and barely modified since then. But still, I’ve always thought it would be great to take this in the other direction and make coaches/managers in all sports dress up in players uniforms. Wouldn’t it have been great to see the famously overweight Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden in a basketball uni, standing on the sidelines with a clipboard and giant purple tanktop?

Or a middle-aged football coach clanking out onto the field with all the pads and helmet on and trying to communicate with everyone and run the show? Much more fun, I say.

I do periodically get an inferiority complex comparing baseball to other sports on an aesthetic level, especially if Europeans are involved. I can vividly remember switching between a Sox game and World Cup soccer when I was in grade school and realizing that my mother clearly had a crush on the Italians’ brooding coach and realizing that this affection would never, ever translate over to the Red Sox skipper.

(Top photo: Jim Leyland, who is the only manager to pull of the uniform look, largely because he already seems like a grizzled 19th century volunteer fireman, and so the garb only increases his already-considerable surreality. Leyland also smoked cigarettes in the dugouts during games long after it was acceptable/legal. Here, he’s shown in the endlessly-maligned stovepipe hats that the Pittsburgh Pirates wore during the 70s and 80s. Image courtesy of Ugly Baseball Card blog)

Recent airport sightings

Some silly things spotted in various airports during my recent trip:

World’s tiniest baggage carousel (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Yes, I know I already posted this in the Clichés In Action post… but: I wish I could rent this thing out for children’s birthday parties. I like how the modest tiny wall partition in the middle allows the carousel to maintain a veneer of ‘technological magic’ while some guy secretly stands behind it and loads bags on.

Ghoulishly lifelike Carl Yastrzemski display (Boston, MA). I swear, after Chicago, Boston has to be the most goonily sports-obsessed city in the entire lower 48. You already have to drive through Ted Freakin’ Williams Tunnel just to get to the airport… and now a life-sized Yaz? My friend pointed out that when he flies to Boston, he can always spot his gate from a great distance just by the proliferation of sports hats visible in the waiting area.

Reassuring ‘Focus Safety’ sign (Vieques, Puerto Rico). There’s a lot to like here:

  1. The likelihood that the copy originally read ‘Focus On Safety’, before someone incrementally decided to turn the ‘On’ part into eyeballs.
  2. The fact that the Cape Air signature hawk has been placed inside the eyeball. This is kinda cool, but also creates the weirdly dissonant implication that  Cape Air is the cause of the danger that the poster is urging you to be vigilant against.
  3. Come to think of it, is the poster exhorting you the customer to exercise vigilance? Or is it reassuring you that the airline itself is always focusing on safety?
  4. Given that the entire Cape Air operation consists of about 4 people and 2 tiny airplanes- each of which is the size of a large van- they’d probably be better off not drawing your attention to the safety issue at all. Take it from someone with first hand experience: the less you think about your safety while flying Cape Air, the happier your experience is likely to be.

Oh, good

Hey, it’s a rare sports-related post. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more bleak for Tiger, this appears on the front page of

Heaven protect me from the moment when I’m experiencing a crushing personal crisis and the phone rings with a consoling Ron Artest on the other end. It’s the sports world equivalent of something like ‘Economists worried about falling dollar | Robert Mugabe offers support’

Bad analogy theater


TK has a new post up on Andre Agassi’s newly-revealed crystal meth habit. Even by the standards of the ‘shocking, tell-all biography’, Agassi’s new book Open seems like a pretty dramatic public self-depantsing. Even the awful signature hair turns out to have been fake– a big bantam rooster-like wig that once nearly fell apart before a big tournament match. One relatively small bit from the book that made a big impression on me: Aggasi spent his childhood basically imprisoned in brick tennis court that his authoritarian father had built, endlessly returning balls shot out of a homemade ball machine that Agassi called ‘the dragon’.

Of course, the full entertainment value of a lurid sports story lies not just the story itself but in the ripple effect of hammy sports writers straining to hit the right emotional notes.’s Rick Reilly – winner of something called the Damon Runyon Award for Sportswriting – submitted a column about the Agassi book with this deeply-felt gem: “Your own life is hard enough. Living somebody else’s life for them weighs on a man like a stone backpack.” A stone backpack? A stone backpack with stone books inside, even? Or how about a more tennis-related analogy: hitting stone tennis balls served up by a homemade stone tennis machine, all while wearing a decomposing stone wig?


Speaking of ham-fisted analogies, I’ve recently been in a bit of a New Order revival phase, listening to the two ‘Substance’ albums quite a bit. Along with a renewed appreciation of the music, I’ve also had an uncomfortable growing awareness that Bernard Summer is not exactly the world’s greatest lyricist. Consider ‘Thieves Like Us’- the song mentions love literally about 380 times, which is a bad sign in itself, but then advances the idea that “Love is the air that supports the eagle.” Yikes. Not only that, but it also “cuts your life like a broken knife.” (Broken knife? Why broken?) You have to appreciate New Order’s story – as Tony Wilson’s character in 24 Hour Party People says, no band survives the death of its lead singer. But it does seem as though when Ian Curtis took his life, he also somehow managed to strangulate the band’s ability to come up with a decent simile.

Then there’s ‘1963’, the one that goes ‘Johhhhhnyyyy… don’t point that gun at me‘. I was always puzzled by the lyrics and vaguely assumed they described some gay crime of passion, but then found a wikipedia entry about the song which explains that the lyrics are actually about ‘the JFK assassination, which occurred in 1963. In the song, Sumner sings from the point of view of Jackie Kennedy, and theorises that John F. Kennedy (a devout Catholic for whom divorce was unthinkable) paid the mobster Jack Ruby to arrange for a hitman to take out his wife so that he could continue his relationship with actress Marilyn Monroe. It further theorises that Monroe committed suicide when she found out that the hired gun, Lee Harvey Oswald, had hit the wrong target. Oswald was, according to Sumner, then in turn assassinated by Ruby for causing his hitman business to go bust. Sumner’s theory is unlikely to be intended seriously, given that Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, over a year before the assassination took place. The producer Stephen Hague has referred to the song as ‘the only song about domestic violence you can dance to'”.

I emailed this entire inane paragraph to a friend who is an ardent New Order fan. His reply:

That new order story is the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard. The last quote makes we want to give away my record collection. I’ve actually been obsessing about it all day.



I was delighted to read the New Yorker profile (subscription required) of Bryan and Bryan, the identical twin doubles tennis stars. I’ve long been fascinated with Bryan and Bryan, although I have to say that it’s the same sort of ambiguous fascination that I have with the music of Perry Como where I’m legitimately uncertain to what extent I really appreciate them and to what extent I find them fascinatingly corny, where the dividing line lies between these feelings, and whether that dividing line is actually real or meaningful in the first place. It’s all somewhat confusing. On the plus side, they seem like legitimately nice guys, they’ve almost double-handedly kept doubles tennis alive as a sport, plus they have the cool twin E.S.P. thing going on where they make the same moves on the court at the same time without knowing they’re doing it and defeat more individually-talented tandems of singles stars through their single-organism style of play.

On the other hand, there’s just something about them that exudes a sense of all-American ham. Perhaps this feeling has its roots in the observation of their clean-cut twinny appearance, or in their boring names (‘Mike’ and ‘Bob’). But, whatever its origin, your suspicion feels well-founded by the time you read the New Yorker’s commentary on their musical activities: ‘… the twins ran through one of their own, tennis-themed power ballads– “I can’t be broken again. I’ve got to hold on now.”‘ Yikes. That’s up their with Dirk Diggler and Chest Rockwell’s fledgling recording career in Boogie Nights.

The real thing that mesmerized me about Bryan and Bryan in the first place was their signature on-court chestbump celebration, a quirk that marries both their lovable exuberance and harder-to-take-seriously sides together in one glorious, goofy expression. [Grammatical note: ‘Chest bump’ is officially spelled as two words, but I’m putting them together for editorial effect, to make it seem like a familiar part of our cultural landscape.] Part of the magic of the chestbump is that they seem to launch into it via the same twin E.S.P.– it’s not like they exchange a knowing glance and go into it, or like one brother leans towards the other suggestively to initiate it. It’s more like, they win a point  and suddenly – bang! – chests are bumping.

As an homage to Bryan and Bryan, my friend Patrick and I adopted the chestbump as a legitimately-enjoyable-but-also-basically-just-goofing-around move during a trip we took to Portugal a few years ago. We tried to develop the same chestbump-E.S.P. that the Bryans’ display. But mostly, it was just fun to gratuitously celebrate things that don’t really merit celebration during our trip. Our top 3 dumb chestbumps, in reverse order:

3. Getting completely lost on steep, remote hills in the Portugese countryside and then finding the path back to safety just as we were entirely running out of energy… chestbump!

2. When our on-flight drink service arrived after we were belted into our seats. Nothing is sillier than doing a chestbump when you’re physically restrained around the waist.

1. A chestbump (I can’t remember the provocation) executed in a doorway, causing Patrick to smash his head into the doorjamb. Rank amateurism, I know.

To summarize: the chestbump is a physically exhilarating gesture that promotes camaraderie, and I highly recommend it. You can’t let yourself be restrained by social self-consciousness from executing it in public. That’s just society telling you what you can’t do, man.

The More Things Change…

This is the first in a short series of posts responding to some of Dan’s more recent posts, which I’ve been digesting today after a return from a 2-week trip with limited internet access.  Today’s installment: Sports Before Radio.  I was totally fascinated to learn about this past phenomenon (where crowds would gather to watch crude mechanical reenactments of baseball games), but my reaction is actually exactly the opposite as Dan’s — it seems strangely contemporary, as I am constantly tracking baseball games in almost exactly the same manner via the various cell phone/online real time depictions available from,, etc.   Here’s a screen shot of one of them:mlb-mobile-pre

Eerily similar to the photos from Dan’s post, eh?  It’s often struck me that the information contained in these stripped-down depictions is hardly less rich than what you get in a televised game, where the footage is basically identical from game to game.  Think about it: if they replaced the live shots from whatever game you’re watching today with footage from some 1970s Phillies/Mets game, would it really be any different (other than the silly goatees being replaced by silly moustaches)?  I’m not talking only about the “action,” as in a ground ball to 2nd or whatever, but even the recurring and always-identical Kabuki-like dramas that play out, such as the pitching coach picking up the bullpen phone to get a reliever ready when the starter seems to be tiring, the identical ways that managers fight with umpires over blown calls, or the ways that batters use body language to indicate their unhappiness with a called strike three.  Indeed, when people who don’t care for baseball ask me how I can possibly spend time watching games, I tend to respond, “Well, do you ever spend any time doing absolutely or almost nothing at all?  That’s what watching baseball is for me.  It’s like meditation.”