My Evening with LeBron James

Sixteen years ago, I attended my first NBA game. It was a DARE field trip and a Minnesota Timberwolves team on the cusp of relevance was playing the Utah Jazz. Karl Malone was there. John Stockton was there. Tom Gugliotta was probably there. I bought a David Robinson pennant. I peed next to Flip Saunders.

Sixteen year later, I attended my second NBA game, mostly to see LeBron James.

I’m no fan of LeBron. I’ve poked plenty of fun at him in the past and he broke my heart beyond description during last year’s Finals. Even if I always hate him, he now commands my eternal respect. Watching him play basketball live was beyond beautiful; it was frightening.

It isn’t just that he’s large. And powerful. And fast. And graceful. It’s that he combines all of those things together in a way that makes “violent” the only proper adjective.

LeBron James plays basketball like the US Marine Corps conducts war. It’s surgical, it controls the tempo (usually fast), it’s powerful, and it is both emotionless and remorseless in its precision.

So, yeah. James and the Heat beat the hometown Wolves 103-82. Everyone had their scrubs in by the middle of the 4th quarter. But, I got to see the best in the world.

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The Least Self-Aware Place on Earth

Welcome to the NFL, the least self-aware place on Earth.

Where billionaires can secure hundreds of millions of dollars from the general public, despite emerging evidence  that the economic benefit of new stadiums to the community has been grossly over-exaggerated. Enjoy the $10 beers, Minneapolis.

Where there’s somehow still a team named after a racial epithet in fucking 2013. Tradition!

Where the NFL’s glacial approach to concussion research is defended or minimized. As long as it happens to other people, “they knew the risks.” Except when they don’t.

Where apparently enough people haven’t shot themselves in the head yet to take mental illness, concussions, or the costs of macho culture seriously.

Where a 3.2 year average career does nothing to change a culture so thoroughly infused with testosterone that thoughtfulness, reflection, and safety are perceived as weaknesses.

Where we regularly castigate players for stupidity and criminality while ignoring Art Rooney’s potential tax evasion, Jimmy Haslam’s fraud allegations, and Zigi Wilf’s racketeering. Here, Zigi, have my tax money! It’s in good hands.

Where society’s rules and norms simply don’t apply. Getting involved in the death of another human being might lead to the Hall of Fame, a broadcasting gig or maybe just another team. Drunk driving? Maybe a month suspension. Don’t sweat anything else.

Where announcers praise our military service-members, gravely reminding us that football is “just a game,” yet can’t make it ten minutes without talking about players “going to war,” “the battle in the trenches,” or “gridiron warriors.” And do it without the slightest trace of irony.

Of course, cherry-picking a bunch of individual stories isn’t especially indicative of anything. Taken together, it’s pretty clear that my title is incorrect. Maybe the NFL is the most self-aware place on Earth, and we’re all being played for suckers.

I guess I’ll keep throwing money at the NFL and hope I find out.

Prodigal Son

This was almost a triumphant story. 37.2 seconds away. Then 23.9 seconds. Then 19.4. 7.9. Then it was gone.

This was almost a story of a young man abandoning a place where he grew up. Going off to the greener pastures on the other side of the fence. Then, having a change of heart, returning to great fanfare and celebration.

Almost.

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90’s basketball was the best. The Admiral swatting shots away. Shaq destroying backboards. Hakeem Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake.” The Glove to the Reign Man. Mt. Mutombo’s wagging finger. Stockton and the Mailman. And of course, Air Jordan, Pip, and the Chicago Bulls.

Has any sport been as loaded with awesome nicknames?

Has any sport been as loaded with all-time greats during a decade?

Has any sport ever been so compelling? Continue reading

Just Do Your Job

Last year, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, previously known only to special teams aficionados, gained national attention when a Maryland state delegate asked the Ravens to prevent Ayanbadejo from speaking out in support of same-sex marriage. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe published a response on Deadspin eviscerating said delegate, becoming a national civil rights figure himself. Now, both are out of jobs.

This isn’t about them. After all, Ayanbadejo himself noted that he was 36 years old and not producing like he used to. As a Vikings fan, I know firsthand that Chris Kluwe was and is a maddeningly frustrating punter. These decisions can be easily defended in a football context.

This is about the rest of us. Continue reading

Causation

The Sandy Hook Shooting made me think about guns, children, mental illness, the Bill of Rights, violent video games, and an assortment of related topics. I’ve also been thinking about collective guilt and the NFL. Concussions, suicide, premature deaths, and my role as an avid football fan have been weighing heavily on my mind since the death of Junior Seau, the first casualty whom I can remember watching play. I also play video games with violence and explosions. (Yay!)

While these topics might not seem connected, all three have led me to the same place. Our society’s glorification of violence doesn’t cause violence. It’s an effect. We glorify violence because, at heart, we are a violent people in a society that values violence. Continue reading

How Do We Measure Elite?

With yesterday’s Super Bowl victory, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco guaranteed that, next year, he’ll be getting muckafuckin’ paid. At the beginning of the year, Flacco asserted that he was an “elite” NFL quarterback. During the regular season, Flacco finished in the middle of the pack in every meaningful statistic. That narrative changed with one of the greatest playoffs performances in NFL history. Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? Continue reading

Nationalism, Sports, and Loss

I don’t care about the Olympics.

There. I said it.

While everyone else caught gold medal fever this summer and sang the praises of Olympic heroes old and new, I awaited the end of a long, ugly baseball season and the start of NFL Training Camp.

I don’t care about American athletes in international competition.

This contrasted strikingly with the people of Scotland during Wimbledon. No British tennis player had won a Men’s Final since Fred Perry in 1936. While I was visiting my friend Dylan in Edinburgh, Andy Murray, a Scotsman, made it to the Men’s Final against perhaps the greatest tennis player in history, Roger Federer. Continue reading