Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chasing a Fantasy

I silently fume at the ESPN stat line for Mario Chalmers. The young Miami Heat point guard has just dropped a total dud of a game: 5 points and 1 assist. The one assist roiled me, because going into the final game of the week I was behind by only two assists against my fantasy basketball opponent. At the very moment I had counted on him, Chalmers had choked and cost me a category. That was the final straw- after weeks of watching Chalmers play poorly or disappear during crunch time, I dropped him from my fantasy basketball team, the Roving Storm.

In these dark and desperate times, few things bring me greater joy than managing the Roving Storm in the online fantasy league, When The Garden Was Dead, where I double as commissioner, competing against eleven friends in a 20-week season. The league’s name refers to the moribund Madison Square Garden crowd, which has had to endure the worst run in Knicks history at the same time it has had to weather the Bush presidency, two wars and an economic collapse. Yes, it’s been a tough decade. In the world of fantasy basketball, however, those problems melt away, replaced by the headaches that come with running a basketball team.

It starts with underperforming players. I curse loudly as I watch Baron Davis shoot 1 for 14, again. The bastard just doesn’t know when to stop! Of course, if he doesn’t respond to his real-life coach, he’s not going to respond to his fake coach yelling at the TV screen. But I can dream.

I make trades to bring balance to the team, including one controversial swap (Ben Wallace for Paul Pierce) that leads to a massive email war over the definition of collusion. I ultimately rework the trade (Marcus Camby for Paul Pierce), placating the more hostile opponents of the trade, who had been rallying other team owners to veto it. I feel like Barack Obama, ending with a lesser deal than I would have liked, but so winning the votes required for passage. My sympathy for the Senate healthcare plan momentarily increases.

Making trades is hard. My opponents are not stupid- no one wants a washed up, injured Tracy McGrady, his impressive career be damned. I am forced to drop McGrady for nothing. Knicks General Manager Donnie Walsh has no such option in dumping his worthless hacks, who are under multiyear contracts.

Sundays, the Lord’s day of rest, are particularly anxious. In fantasy basketball leagues people field their thirteen-player teams against opponents for one week, Monday through Sunday. The teams are matched up according to eight categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, three pointers made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Each of these categories can be won or lost in a given week, and these results are compiled over the long season. Most teams are evenly matched in at least some of these categories, and until the final NBA game ends Sunday night, the results for the whole week hang in balance.

Fantasy basketball fundamentally changes the way a fan watches NBA basketball. Other than the Knicks, I now rarely root for any team to beat another, far more concerned with the individual players on the court. Hardly any NBA game being played at a given moment does not involve either one of my fantasy players or one of my opponent’s. This makes rooting during games a truly absurd exercise. When Kevin Love is guarding Carl Landry (both are my players), I root for Carl Landry to score, or, in the alternative, for Kevin Love to block the shot or get the rebound off Landry’s miss. During one very close game between the Bobcats and the Knicks, I was schizophrenically rooting for the Knicks to win, but for the Bobcats’ guard Ray Felton to score as many points as possible in the process.

I worry sometime that all NBA players are becoming a series of statistics, the way insurance companies think of patients or military commanders deploy soldiers. One of the keys to fantasy success is the ability to remove conceptions you may have of a player (“he’s clutch under pressure,” “he’s a good defender,” “he’s an all-star”) with more perfunctory questions: “what is his field goal percentage?” “How many blocks a game does he get?” “How has he played in the last thirty days?”

ESPN pits the four best fantasy teams in each league against each other for four weeks of playoffs, which in turn end with the conclusion of the NBA regular season. That is good. Whether or not I win the “Living The Dream Cup,” I’ll be able to kick back and watch the NBA playoffs like a normal fan, appreciating the beauty of the game, without stat lines racing through my head.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Fear Behind The Fear

Would Jack Kerouac kick back and hammer out his poems in smooth jazz café? Maybe, if it had wireless internet. My current dig has everything you want- great coffee, reliable wireless, plenty of seating, and a happy little collection of local Brooklyn newspapers that old men ingest while they sip tea and watch the first snow of the year fly by their windows.

There are a lot of things that you used to make me afraid of getting old. Doesn’t it make ya wince when you watch an old flick and think, "Man, he used to look like that? And now he looks like this?" It’s bad enough to watch relatives age, but seeing it happen to impregnable famous athletes and movie stars is more sudden dispiriting. Yes, yes, looks are superficial and all that, but what about brains? Until I saw Guido Calabrese majestically and literally hold court in the Second Circuit, I was having trouble wrapping my head around the older and wiser concept. Then you’ve got health issues, oh man, the health issues. It’s pretty easy to picture that part of the journey. Long gone are the days when I would knock myself unconscious diving into a brick wall playing Chinese handball. Recently I pulled a muscle while I was sleeping. Tough times indeed. Nobody ever is what he used to be. But now there’s a new cause for agingaphobia, and it has to with Sergei Brin, Steve Jobs and all the other techno mad men.

Watching a sexagenarian open an attachment is painfully unfair. They worked all their lives to get this far, and now they can’t even open the modern envelope. I gasp- that could be me one day. After all, I declared boldly in 1998 that email would never take off. I was the last guy to get a cell phone, preferring to memorize numbers in my head or scrawl them on my hand as I marched into the night with quarters in my back pocket. I didn’t send a text message till 2006, and learned how to upload pictures what seems like yesterday.

As we get older and stop making sense, our children and grandchildren will play with toys that seem like magic, and young associates will roll their eyes every time we say, “the what?” or “how/where?” Every step you fall behind now is two you’ll have to make up later. Lyndon Johnson knew this- that’s why the Great Society begat Head Start. Every runner knows this- that’s why you’ve gotta work the hills. The internet is no information highway, my friends, it’s a raging river, and all boats are sinkable. My new year’s resolution is to keep my head above water, fear of technology trumped by fear of falling too far behind to enjoy the future milk and honey years


Tiger and Me

“Sometimes I wish I was Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods. Sometimes I wish I was Tiger Woods.”

- Dan Bern, “Tiger Woods”

Sports fans don’t care about athletes’ personal lives. Especially golf players’ personal lives.

Recently, people have been questioning why it took so long for the public (or for that matter, his wife) so long to find out about Tiger Woods’ string of extramarital affairs, even though it was common knowledge on the PGA Tour.

Some have even accused the reticent sports reporters of perpetuating male chauvinism by not considering it news.

In contrast, sports reporters are far more respectable than their political peers, who love pursuing gossip rather than put in the hard time learning about policy and how it affects our country.

Sports reporters operate under two assumptions:

1) Sports fans care more about how an athlete performs than his personal life;

2) An athlete’s personal life rarely, if ever, has a bearing on how he performs.

Believe it or not, sports columnists are evaluated by their readers on the strength of the breaking news and sports analysis they bring to their columns, and only the sharpest writers, like Bill Simmons or the late Hunter S. Thompson, are permitted to deviate into side tangents.

If a sports reporter’s livelihood depends on earning the trust of the players and the franchises he is covering, it is of little interest to that reporter to get 15 minutes of fame (or less) talking about an affair, a drug problem, or a gambling addiction.

These “‘Former Player X’ Hits Rock Bottom” stories usually only surface when an athlete is no longer of use to the reporter for sports-related journalism.

Political reporting used to operate in this way too. It was presumed that serious newspapers had a serious readership.

Reports appropriately calculated that rather than break a story of Marilyn Monroe leaving the White House at three in the morning, they’d rather stay in the good graces of the Kennedy administration long enough to properly cover the Cuban Missile Crisis.

President Clinton’s affairs were the perfect storm- a charismatic leader facing his Achilles heel (adultery), an ideal nemesis in the hysterically hypocritical Republican leadership, and the carefree emptiness of the go-go late 90s.

Soon after, newspaper sales started to sink, and editors realized covering a sex scandal was a lot easier than covering climate change or the Stupak amendment, and less controversial than covering gay marriage or the Stupak amendment.

Playing to the lowest common denominator is fun and easy in America. Look at Huffington Post, which has become a gossip magazine with occasional political analysis. It’s how you bring in the bucks.

Sports, incidentally, will never face this problem, because there will always be a market of (mostly) men willing to pay money for good sports analysis.

I just dropped $26 to buy Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, even though I can read his articles for free online and I already know a lot about basketball.

Except for hipsters, guys can kick back with friends or strangers, drinking beer and talking sports. And sports fans know A LOT about sports.

Guys who are complete idiots in life- nearly failed out of school, can’t hold a job- they will know the history of a sport.

They will successfully debate you on the fine points of whether a certain shot-blocker is actually a good defender or whether it is possible to compare baseball players from different eras.

It can break your heart to think about what a better country we would live in if sports fans knew a third as much about American history, civics and public policy as they do about sports.

As for Tiger Woods, this is what sports fans know about Tiger Woods.

When he was a teenager, golf reporters were hyping him as potentially the coming savior of golf- the greatest of all time.

Few people under the age of 40 like watching golf, but we were in the halo of the Michael Jordan era at that point, and watching “the greatest” in any sport was a worth a look.

And Tiger Woods delivered.

In a sport that’s incredibly hard to “dominate” in the same fashion as other solo sports like tennis or boxing, Woods in his prime cowered his opponents before demolishing them.

At the 1997 Masters, the 21 year old tied or broke 26 records en route to winning the prestigious event by more shots than any player in history.

From 2000-2001 he became the first modern golfer ever to hold the Tour’s four major championships at the same time (the “Tiger Slam”).

In 2008 he won the U.S Open with a torn ACL, clearly playing with agonizing pain as he labored to a one-shot win. Friends and I watching that called it perhaps the most impressive performance in the history of sports.

I’ve never been remotely interested in Woods’ personal life. He has always struck me as unflinchingly boring, which I had just chalked up to him being a golfer.

It wasn’t until I heard about the four and fifth cuckolder of this unending saga that I started reading about it.

Honestly, it is a fascinating scandal. He seems to have a taste for cocktail waitresses and porn stars.

Rather than a ‘mea culpa’ fling, he seems to be a serial cheater, before and after his marriage to a gorgeous Swedish supermodel. “What hope is there for the rest of us?” one of my female friends sighed.

When I read about him doing it in the back of his car with a pancake house waitress, it occurred to me that maybe something was up.

Maybe the lifelong prodigy, always under the tight supervision of his loving dad Earl (who passed away in 2006), playing in top ranked tournaments since he was nine years old, missed out on a regular youth.

Maybe he was never able to party in clubs and hook up with girls in the back of his car when he was in high school or college (Stanford alums, feel free to comment).

Maybe this is like Michael Jackson’s rebellion at a repressive youth, only instead of taking advantage of little boys, he’s taking advantage of adult women.

His wife has left him, just as Michael Jordan’s wife left him.

Next year he will win the Masters, and in a few years he will pass Jack Nicklaus for the most all-time major championships.

It will be taboo to bring this whole debacle up, kind of like how no one in sports talks about Kobe Bryant’s alleged rape charge anymore.

So there it is. That’s about as much thought as I will put into the Tiger Woods scandal. Back to taking care of my fantasy basketball team.