Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hawks Talk

Nice win last night for the local basketball collective. I had tickets, but I traded them to Daniel (with whom I share season tickets) because the wife and I wanted to watch the two-hour season finale of The Bachelor. This is what happens when you don't have TiVo...and have misplaced your y-chromosome at some point in your late 20s. (Wait a second, I've been to half the home games of one of the worst teams in the league! Screw you guys! I don't have to justify myself if I want to massage my inner Sappho for a night! Do I?) I did watch/listen to some of the game and it was encouraging to see the team go toe-to-toe with one of the better teams in the East, playing a full line-up. Some observations:

1. Josh Smith is definitely playing better basketball. Leaving aside the fact that he hit two critical jumpers last night (his jumper has been better all season, even when the rest of his game was not progressing,) he's been taking much better care of the ball. Look at his assist averages by month:

November - 1.1
December - 1.3
January - 1.2
February - 3.1

And now his turnovers:

November - 1.8
December - 1.7
January - 2.5
February - 1.3

And one other measure of whether he's handling the ball well and threatening opposing defenses, his free throws attempted per game:

November - 3.43
December - 2.21
January - 2.73
February - 4.75

And now the Hawks' record by month:

November - 2-12
December - 5-9
January - 5-10
February - 6-6

I'm not saying that Smith caused the Hawks to have a .500 record in a month in which they played seven of 12 games on the road, including a three-game West Coast swing that usually kills the team and two games against the Pistons, but he's certainly a factor in the team playing better. His offensive game is rounding out nicely because he's handling the ball better, attacking the hoop, and making good decisions. As I said before, the most discouraging aspect of this season at one stage was that Smith and Childress were not showing progress, but that's no longer true.

2. Speaking of free throws, last night was a classic example of why Vince Carter is an overrated player. If you just watched SportsCenter, then you probably saw a great dunk and a stat that he scored 22 points. What you didn't see was that it took him 24 shots to score 22 points (all of the Hawks' starters scored more points than they took shots from the field,) he took a whopping one free throw, and he missed shots that would have won the game at the end of regulation and the end of overtime. On both occasions, he settled for long jumpers instead of taking the ball to the hoop. And what was he doing launching a 35-footer at the end of overtime when he had time to get much, much closer?

3. Much of the "buzz" on sports radio right now relates to Peter Vescey's column in Sunday's New York Post in which he stated that a Hawks source told him that Salim Stoudamire's two-game suspension was the result of Stoudamire and Mike Woodson physically going at one another in the locker room after the loss to the Sonics. More specifically, the issue is the fact that the New York Post is breaking stories on our local sports teams instead of the AJC. This isn't much of a surprise at all. The AJC is notoriously bad at printing juicy rumors, which is partially to its credit since it places significant sourcing demands on its writers. The end result is a less entertaining paper that has fewer cutting edge stories, but also fewer articles that they end up having to disavow. (I'm sure that Richard Jewell would feel differently about that last statement.) The AJC is the way it is because this is a one-newspaper town and without competition, they don't have the incentive to print sexy material. What they probably don't get is that they're competing with other media outlets, like sports talk radio and the Web, and people like me don't subscribe to the AJC because we can get better information without resorting to the newspaper.

It was amusing for me to hear Steak Shapiro on 790 the Zone criticize the AJC for possibly sitting on the Stoudamire story, since his source within the organization confirmed that the altercation happened. Strangely enough, I don't recall Steak reporting on what his source told him until after Vescey broke the story. Maybe I missed it in between the steady avalanche of commercials during the morning show of which I remain a loyal listener. (Seriously, is there a better job that sports talk radio host? You work a four-hour show, during which you're actually speaking for only half that time, as the other half is filled with repetitive sports and traffic updates. Add in the occasional "Bud Light Radio Replay," in which old interviews are recycled for programming time, and your job consists of less than two hours of work. [In fairness, radio hosts do have to prepare for their 110 minutes of actual programming and they do have to do promotional appearances, rough gigs like shooting threes at halftime of Hawks games.])

4. One other interesting development in February: Joe Johnson started playing point guard, or at least started playing like a point guard. His shooting percentage, three-point percentage, free throws attempted, and rebounds were all down in the month, but his assists per game shot up by over 50%:

November - 5.0
December - 5.8
January - 6.1
February - 9.3

He did this while holding his turnovers per game at his season average of 3.2 per game. He had 11+ assists in seven of 12 games this month; in those games, the Hawks were 5-2. The team desperately needed a point guard and on this evidence, it looks possible that Johnson could play that role, at least for significant stretches of games, if not as the full-time starter. If that's true, then that dramatically affects the Hawks' plans for the off-season. It makes retaining Al Harrington a possibility, although there's no way that he's worth the max and retaining him will certainly impede Marvin Williams' progress. It means that the team has a much greater need at power forward/center and thus, we all need to be praying that LaMarcus Aldridge declares and is available when the Hawks send David Stern to the podium. On the other hand, this is only a 12-game sample, so as the Wolf said, let's not start blanking each other's blanks just yet.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Humiliating Admissions

LD has started an interesting discussion on the worst books/movies/concerts/meals he's ever experienced. This topic hits close to home, since I bought an I-Pod ten days ago and have since been downloading all my CDs onto my home computer, a truly embarrassing process since it reminds me how much crap I actually own. The California Raisins Sing the Hits? Check. Greatest Hits of KC and the Sunshine Band? Check. Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time? Yep, that one, too. (In my defense, I borrowed it from a law school friend when we were driving down to the Outer Banks for Beach Week in 2000 and never gave it back, but still, the fact that I went to the trouble of borrowing it cannot be justified in any way, nor can I justify the fact that I actually downloaded it into "Michael's Joy," the name of my I-Pod on my home computer.) I'm also embarrassed by the fact that I have too many Greatest Hits albums, the bane of any discriminating music fan. I can just hear John Cusack's character from High Fidelity lampooning me as I go through my CDs: "You know, Elvis and James Brown had some pretty fair albums. You might want to look into them." I then end up clutching my copious Dylan bootlegs and softly muttering "I'm eclectic" over and over again. Anyway, on with the show:

1. What is the worst DVD/video you own?

Oddly enough, the wife and I rented Midnight Cowboy from Blockbuster months ago, never returned or watched it before finally taking it in last night, and I found it bizarre, but I suspect that it will improve with subsequent viewings. It's nowhere close to the worst movie we own, certainly not when I have no fewer than three Adam Sandler vehicles on DVD. The Best of Will Ferrell, Vol. 2 is remarkably disappointing, featuring some truly inexplicable sketch choices. (How do you have two DVDs of his work and "Storytellers: Neil Diamond" still fails to appear?) I suppose that Road House is technically a bad movie, but it pretty much defines the category of "good bad movie," or at least "fun bad movie," so it doesn't rate here.

Off the top of my head, I'd have to go with American Pie II because after watching it more and more, it gets less and less funny. The premise is ludicrous. (A group of high school friends rent a mansion on the beach while working as house painters for the summer - that happens all the time, right?) The screenwriter made some indefensible choices in terms of giving lines to some of the worst characters (I defy you to find anything funny in any of Kevin's lines from the movie, with his frustrated monologue on the beach while staring off to the horizon, wondering what it all means, was a nadir in human existence) and writing very little for some of the funnier characters (Natasha Lyonne's character was pleasantly amusing but got no attention in the movie, and Lord knows she needed the exposure then.) The big gross-out scene with Stifler getting peed upon seemed like it took about 30 seconds to conceive: "Let's see. Stifler accidentally drank semen in the first movie and audiences seemed to enjoy it, so what bodily fluid can he be humiliated with in the sequel? Feces? No, let's save that as the piece de resistance for the third movie. What does that leave us?" And far be it from me to ever complain about a lesbian scene, but has anyone ever noticed that the red-headed lesbian just wasn't very good looking? Is that too much to ask when casting a character whose sole purpose is to look good while making out with another woman in her underwear?

2. What is the worst concert you've ever seen in person?

Attending bad concerts at Chastain Park is truly a rite of passage for Atlanta barristers. Nothing says "that rocks!" less than an amphitheater in an insanely ritzy part of town filled with professionals sipping chablis and talking loudly about that time they got lost and ended up on Memorial Drive. I'll vote for the George Benson show I saw there as a summer associate in 1999. The food was good and I got to drink, so it wasn't that bad, but man, was I bored. My Memory Palace of winning the Champions League for Barcelona in extra time and then unfurling a combo American/Catalan flag got a real work out that night. The good news was that I found out that Neil Young was not the first one to sing "On Broadway."

Weirdly enough, the last two shows I've seen at Chastain were alright. I saw Seal there with the wife and another couple last summer and wasn't overly enamored, but I was entertainined by watching all the women assembled stare intently at his crotch for two hours. The wife and I also saw Robert Plant there last summer and had a great time, although the concert wasn't sold out, which figures since Chastain only fills up for easy listening crap. Did I mention that the place was packed for George Benson?

3. What is the worst experience you've ever had at a restaurant?

I'm tempted to list any one of a number of dates in college and my first two years of law school, but in retrospect, the humiliation in those instances usually came afterwards when I made a series of ham-handed attempts to get some, only to realize that paying for dinner does not create a binding contract for smooching, petting, and fumbling at bra straps. I also saw a proposal at a Red Lobster in Orlando in the late 90s, which made me feel bad for those involved moreso than myself. I once got to watch my high school debate coach get into a shouting match with the manager at Grandma's in Peekskill, New York over charges for iced tea refills before piling us all into a rental van and shouting obscenities (and the occasional borderline ethnic insult) as we peeled out of the parking lot.

All that said, the worst experience for me in a restaurant was probably my father's infamous outburst at a Rax in Pittsburgh in 1983. I was eight years old, a good age to be mortified by one's parents (although it would have been worse had I been in middle school, when being around one's parents is, by definition embarrassing.) Dad ordered a beef stroganoff baked potato (I love him dearly, but he's never been noted for his great taste; as a family, we had to stage a fashion intervention by confiscating his pair of highlighter blue pants in the late 80s because he wore them every weekend) and, angered that there was an insufficient amount of beef on this culinary masterpiece, proceeded to bat it across the table, knocking over a flimsy flower vase that Rax had deployed to create a whiff of fine dining. Dad then proceeded to angrily fill out a comment card and refused to submit it to the comment box or to the person working the register, instead demanding to hand it to the manager in person. I can only assume that I blacked out at this stage, because I don't recall the encounter with the manager.

4. What is the worst movie you've ever seen in the theatre?

I'd have to go with either Sliver or The Color of Night, both of which were released in that dreadful period after Basic Instinct in which "psychological thrillers" were all the rage, thus giving filmmakers an excuse to portray human beings as horny voyeurs who would ultimately screw and murder one another. I can't express how bad these movies are. Matrix Revolutions is also up there. Speaking of which...

5. What is the worst book you've actually finished?

Without a doubt, Phantastes. This book was surreal in a stupid way and my enduring memory is arguing with my 11th grade English teacher after he tried to justify this impenetrable mess by asking "maybe we aren't really here?", at which point I should have said "so if I punch you in the face, nothing will happen to any of us because we're all constructs of some higher power's imagination, right?"

6) Who is the worst looking or least appealing celebrity you would have intimate relations with "just to tell the story"?

Ann Coulter. My left-of-center friends would be both mortified and highly interested to find out just how vigorous a rogering I gave her. Plus, when the act was done, I could reach into her chest cavity, Mola Ram style, and determine what she has beneath her sternum in place of a functioning heart.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Who Flung Poo?

Here's one for Rammer Jammer's archives: Liverpool fans apparently decided that the most appropriate way to show their respect for Manchester United striker Alan Smith, who grotesquely dislocated his ankle and broke his leg in the clubs' FA Cup match on Saturday, was to rock the ambulance carrying his heavily-sedated body away from Anfield.

Actually, it turns out that RJYH has already linked a story about this episode (how's that for speedy service?), but his article omits another allegation from the linked Guardian article that also emerged from Saturday's game that should interest (but hopefully not inspire) SEC fans: Liverpool fans also decided that the best way to extend their famous hospitality to their friends from Manchester was to throw feces-filled paper cups at the Manchester fans below them. Everyone has heard the lovely stories of LSU fans raining empty bottles, urine, and assorted other sundry substances on the visiting fans below them, and similar allegations have been made about Florida fans (hence the "Florida rule" in the SEC that student sections have to be a certain distance from the opposing team's bench.) However, flinging doodie like so many chimpanzees takes homefield advantage to a new level. So congrats to Liverpool, a cutting-edge city that first gave us the Beatles and now has given us what should be all the rage in the Southeastern Conference in coming years.

And While We're Discussing European Football, a Subject Critical to all Atlanta Fans...

A few words on the Barca-Chelsea game yesterday:

1. Originally, I was quite annoyed by Jose Mourinho's predictable whining that his team lost because of a bad red card decision. The decision to give Del Horno a straight red was a little harsh, but he did fly at Leo Messi with his studs up after the ball had already passed him, so he put himself in danger of being sent off by doing that. He had also already stuck his studs into Messi without getting a call, so there might have been a "I should have given him a yellow for that, so I'll make up for that sin by issuing a straight red" rationale going on in the head of Terje Hauge. (That rationale was clearly going on after the red card, when he disregarded two clear penalties in the box by Chelsea, one when Geremi blocked a goal-bound shot with his extended arm and one when John Terry trampled Messi in the box going for a free ball and then landed on the ball with his hands for good measure. Somehow, I think that two penalties are a fair trade for a questionable red card, especially since Barca created the pressure that led to the red and the penalty claims by keeping the ball in the Chelsea half for most of the game.) Mourinho's complaint that Messi was acting is a real laugh, since Messi was only doing what players all over the world do, as evidenced by the fact that the offender Del Horno was doing the exact same thing not three meters away, as well as the fact that Messi's Argentinian compatriot Hernan Crespo had spent an extended period of time rolling on the ground earlier in the game, desperately trying for a BAFTA. Likewise, his claim that the game was even at that stage is also a joke, since Barca had 64% possession at that point, they had the only shots on goal, and the aforementioned Crespo had only seen the ball when being flagged for offside. I have no patience for whining from a coach whose club watered their quagmire of a pitch after a rain storm to get an advantage.

All that said, I've come around this morning to the realization that you can't take anything that Mourinho says seriously. Most coaches make calculated statements (or wild tangents) to affect the refereeing in the future (or to motivate their teams,) regardless of the sport. Mourinho can't possibly think that his argument is grounded in fact and Platonic logic, but he's trying to work the ref for the return leg. As I tell my wife when she comes home and tells me of all the insults that were spewed at her by the delusional patients she evaluates, you can't take the ravings of a crazy man seriously.

2. One unique aspect of international football is the divided loyalties that are created. Last night, I was cheering on Leo Messi and cursing Arjen Robben. This summer, when Holland and Argentina meet, I'll be doing the reverse. Last night, I was applauding Rafa Marquez and marveling at the fact that he has more offensive skill than I had previously thought. (His pressure created the first goal, he assisted on the second, and his shot that hit Geremi's arm should have bought Barca a penalty.) This summer, when he plays for Mexico, I'll be jeering him and his faux Banderas ponytail. American sports don't really have an analog to this dimension since we don't really care about international competition. It's nice when our teams win, but no one's going to plan a parade for the Dream Team when they win the gold medal. The closest comparison I can come up with is when a college player that I liked is drafted by a pro team that I hate, or vice versa, but even in that case, there isn't the element of "I'm going to have to go back to liking Messi after this summer."

3. The stream of attacks that Barca launched after they fell behind 1-0 on Motta's dreadful own goal were a thing of beauty. The 20-minute stretch between that goal and Eto'o's winner will go down in my memory as one of my favorite stretches of a sporting event, although I reserve the right to completely disregard that statement if Barca blows their home leg and the insane Mourinho gets to gloat again in a post-game press conference.

4. Phil Ball, in addition to taking a more sympathetic view to the red-card decision, makes the point that last night's game really drove home for those of us who don't get to watch Spanish Primera games on a regular basis: Leo Messi is really, really good. He didn't score last night, nor did he assist on either of Barca's goals, both of which came from the left, Ronaldinho's side, but he ran Asier Del Horno ragged and his pressure created Barca's one-man advantage. He repeatedly got into the box and created chances, similar to Arjen Robben's performance at Euro '04 for Holland back when he wasn't coached by a gaffer who sits his entire midfield behind the ball and then waits for the opposition to commit too many players forward before attacking. (One caveat: Portugal owned Robben in the semifinal.)

5. If Barca and Chelsea can work up so much Morbo in three games over two seasons, imagine what they could do with a seven-game series.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Germans, They're Just Like Us

(For those of you who don't read US Weekly or have a wife who does so religiously, the title is a nod to the "Stars: They're Just Like Us" section of that fine publication, which typically features stars caught by the paparazzi spilling yogurt on their sweatshirts or getting into disputes with parking attendants.)

My friend Ben, a committed Teutonophobe who derisively dubbed me "Herr Michael" when I purchased a German car and proceeded to make a number of jokes involving the car's exhaust that only Jews can make to one another, will be upset to learn of this, but it turns out that German fans are just like American fans, at least in one important respect: their pride often detracts from their good sense. It turns out that Bayern Munich fans are now upset that their star midfielder Michael Ballack hasn't signed a new contract for next year and wouldn't be that sad to see him go. Ballack, as the article points out, is by far the best player on a Bayern team that's poised to win the Bundesliga yet again. In fact, he's the best player in Germany by a significant margin. Without him, the Germans don't stand a chance this summer when they host the World Cup. For instance, in 2002, he scored the goals that won Germany the quarters and semis and then was suspended for the 2-0 loss to Brazil in the final.

Anyway, this is a somewhat verbose way of saying that Bayern fans should be thanking their lucky stars that Ballack wears their jersey and not Real Madrid or Manchester United's. Ballack hasn't signed a new contract, knowing that he will command a tremendous figure on the open market as one of the top five players in the world right now. No rational person could begrudge him a desire to maximize his own position and he's playing so well right now that he's making his value go through the roof. However, sports fans are not rational. We expect our players to love our teams more than themselves, so when Ballack doesn't put his name on the dotted line, Bayern fans lose their minds.

In this respect, they're just like Americans. Remember how Boston fans turned on Johnny Damon this December when he signed with the Yankees after they offered him more money and made his signing a much greater priority than the Red Sox did? Sports Guy wrote a great column about it, pointing out that it's hard for fans to understand that players rarely love their teams like fans do, but that, from their perspective, it's rational. Philly fans were the same way when Terrell Owens' dispute with his team blew up; they universally sided with the Eagles, even though the Eagles' hard-line stance blew up their season (even before McNabb got hurt.) Minnesota fans were happy to see Randy Moss go, foolishly thinking that their team would get better without their best player. Braves fans are routinely peevish towards players who leave after getting better offers from other teams. We fans, on this side of the pond or the other, love our teams to the point that we'll support them even when they're making decisions that make winning less likely. How rational is that? Or, put another way (paraphrasing William Munny in Unforgiven,) rational's got nothin' to do with it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"I know [you think] you are a great person and a great coach but in truth you are just a shit."

Your required reading material in advance of the titanic Champions League clash between Premier League leaders Chelsea and Primera leaders Barcelona can be found here and here. The back story of the bad blood between the clubs, which makes this encounter even more exciting than a normal pairing between the leaders in two of the three premier leagues in Europe, is set out (with a decided English bias) here. And here is the story of Barca's rise over the past few years, along with a tasty contrast between the clubs that is extremely flattering to Barca fans:

It is the most tantalizing of European grudge matches, coming so soon after last season's raging, impassioned tango. The people's club against the oligarch's, and Barcelona's general distaste for Chelsea's ideology is undiminished. Would [Barca VP Ferran] Soriano's club accept winning mechanically à la Mourinho? "Absolutely not," he says, wincing. "If a results-orientated coach came to Barcelona and said he would sacrifice Ronaldinho or Messi to have a more robust team, he would not be hired. Our fans want to watch good football. And remember who owns the club - 135,000 members. Chelsea are the exact opposite."

Leave it to the liberal Guardian to spin a match as the people versus the oligarch. G-d, I love that.

As for the match itself, there are a number of new players involved. For Chelsea, Arjen Robben, their best attacking winger, is healthy this year, whereas he missed both ties last year (but was well replaced by Damien Duff and Joe Cole.) Chelsea also has Michael Essien, giving them a second rough tackler in the midfield to go with Claude Makelele. Barca will counter with Edmilson, who was also injured last year, as their defensive midfielder, probably along with Rafa Marquez. Defensive midfield is where the games will be won or lost, as both teams' attacking midfielders and forwards need service to succeed. Barca lost last year because their midfield provided absolutely no cover for the defense on counter-attacks in the 15-minute period in which they allowed three goals at Stamford Bridge. Another aspect to watch will be Barca's ability to defend set-pieces. Chelsea, like most English teams, scores a lot of their goals from corners and free kicks that find the heads of their big players. Barca struggled with set-pieces in the second leg last year and will need to do a better job of marking. Finally, the tactics deployed by the two coaches will be interesting. Last year, Jose Mourinho deployed a stultifying defensive approach in the road leg and then ripped Barca apart in the home leg with counters that caught Barca outnumbered at the back. Does he do the same thing this year, or will he be more conservative at home, knowing that a 1-0 win would put his team in good position going to the second leg? And how does Frank Rijkaard, a significantly less-experienced manager, match up to what Mourinho is doing?

This match triggers all of my inherent pessimism about good triumphing over evil in soccer. The teams I root for - Holland and Barcelona - are noted for playing attacking football and for never winning the big one. (Barca has won the Champions League only once; Holland has never won the World Cup and has only one European Championship to its credit.) They are usually undone by cynical, defensive teams that absorb all of their pressure and then score against the run of play after my team commits too many people forward in the attempt to play soccer by attempting to score goals. My formative experience in seeing this style of play work was the 1990 World Cup, when a mediocre Argentine team made the World Cup Final by defending ruthlessly (because Maradona was not 100%) and then winning games in penalties. (To be clear, they didn't knock Holland out. My archtype for Holland losing to an excessively defensive side is their loss at home in the 2000 European Cup semis to Fortress Italia.) They scored two goals in four knock-out games, but they ended up finishing second while teams that actually tried to play fell by the wayside. This Barca-Chelsea match, between a team that plays three forwards and a team that grinds out 1-0 results, triggers all of my 1990 phobias. The lesson, as always, is that I'm paranoid.

Braves Chatter

If it's mid-February, then it must be time for reports to trickle out of Braves camp (as they do from each spring training camp, even, we presume, that of the Royals) about every roster player (and the occasional non-roster invitee) looking great. The hitters have all either gained or lost weight and either way, that portends a great season. The pitchers are all throwing with great velocity and are impressing Bobby (with the added perk this year that they're all learning new things from Roger McDowell.) Anyway, the reports are here and here. I don't have much to add, other than to say that it'll be interesting to return to these articles in July to see that Anthony Lerew, Chuck James, and Oscar Villarreal were so highly touted in spring ball. My guess is that one of the three will have an impact, although for James, that's contingent on one or possibly two injuries in the starting rotation.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I Wish I Knew How To Quit You, Josh Smith

Just when I'm ready to write Josh Smith's second-year campaign off as a waste and just when the Hawks were about to go 0-3 on a road trip that looked like an important chance to show that the win over Detroit was no fluke, this happens. Last night was possibly the most encouraging game of the season, not just because the Hawks beat a pretty good team fighting for its playoff life at home, but because the stars of the show were the players who are the Hawks' future: Joe Johnson (20 points on 16 shots, 15 assists), Josh Smith (21 points on 11 shots, 15 rebounds), and Josh Childress (21 points on ten shots, seven rebounds). If those three can play that well on a consistent basis, then this team will really be just a point guard away from contending for a playoff spot in the East (admittedly, not the highest plateau in the world, but remember that this is a team that lost 69 games last year.) The one player who's almost certainly not part of the team's plans for the future - Al Harrington - had a very quiet eight-point, four-turnover night.

To the extent that any game in an 82-game odyssey tells us anything, this game illustrated that the Hawks have made actual progress this year, which is all those of us who didn't harbor delusions of grandeur about 40 wins wanted to see this year. In the home opener, the Lakers screwed around for a half before knocking the Hawks out in the third and never seeing their lead go below double digits in the 4th except when the teams emptied their benches with two minutes remaining. Last night, after allowing 31 points in the first nine minutes (I've gotten very good over the part few years at doing calculations in my head like "the Lakers are on pace to score 165 points tonight; I wonder if that'll make SportsCenter?"), the Hawks played a very good second quarter (other than a few lazy passes,) and didn't trail for the final ten minutes of the game.

Two reasons to be cautious on reading too much into last night: (1) this is the same Hawks team that got run off the floor in Sacramento on Sunday night; and (2) the Lakers missed a ton of free throws in the fourth quarter, which I assure you had nothing to do with Childress and Smith developing as players.

And to further illustrate that Michigan blogs rule...

I snorted tea onto my laptop when I saw this.

Anyone who can work rioting Pakistanis and Bama fans into one post deserves eternal praise. My only complaint is that the MZone didn't work moptops onto the rioters.

When Al Gore Invented the Internet, This Is What He Had In Mind

This is what happens when a college football blog is authored by someone who actually knows jackshit about Microsoft Excel and web programming instead of a lawyer who takes his twenty-minute morning break from opining on wording of discovery requests to opine on how the Hawks really aren't that bad. Behold, anything you ever wanted to know about third down offense and defense, indexed against the national average and rendered into colorful charts that even a two-year old can understand. My observations:

It's hard to fault Larry Coker for firing his running backs and offensive line coaches when Miami converted third down and one at roughly half the national average. My goodness, there's a lot of red on the Canes' chart. Watching the Miami-FSU game, I could not get past how Miami's dreadful offensive line cost them the game in an instance in which they were otherwise the better team. Apparently, little changed over the course of the season.

Check out the inability of the USC defense to get off the field on third down. I'd like to find a tape of May and Herbstreit waxing poetic about how USC could have broken through several Soviet armies into the Kessel and freed the trapped German 6th Army at Stalingrad, all while holding this chart and cackling ominously.

Steve Spurrier's return to the SEC? Eh, not so much like the first time around. It's a wonder that he got his team to five SEC wins and second in the division. This is either a good sign that he was able to win with a poor team or it's a bad sign that their 2005 performance was a mirage and it's unreasonable to expect them to make the leap from 5-3 to 6-2 or 7-1 in order to win the division.

Want to know why I wanted Michigan to hire John Tenuta? Here you go. A picture of Reggie Ball with the caption "Georgia Tech beat Auburn and Miami on the road with this guy under center" would accomplish the same task, but without the air of sophisticated statistical analysis.

Yeah, I'd say we had a pretty worthy national champion.

I couldn't have seen this one coming. Alabama's offense couldn't convert a third down and their defense refused to allow opponents to convert. Is that why Alabama games turned into punting exhibitions?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Home Depot Tool Race Every Half-Inning!!!

If you're a believer in "where there's smoke, there's fire" (personally, I'm a fan of "where there's hot orange stuff leaping from a log, there's fire",) then prepare yourself for Arthur Blank owning the Braves. I've already weighed in on this possibility, but I had a reckoning this morning on the way to work and, as part of my effort to spin every glass as half-full and growing (how else could I be a Hawks fan?), I came up with the following arguments in favor of Blank buying the team:

1. If Blank doesn't buy them, then someone else probably will and if anyone's going to own a team in a league with no salary cap, then who better than a billionaire Atlantan? He'll never have to cut corners with the team like we all worried that David McDavid would with the Hawks and Thrashers and he's completely invested in Atlanta (not that the Braves moving is a possibility.) We can't view his purchase in a vacuum; it's either him or someone else.

2. Major League Baseball, far more than the NFL, rewards good marketing and maximization of local revenue. In the NFL, most revenues are shared, so even the worst-run teams in the league make plenty of money. In baseball, you have low-revenue teams in huge markets (the White Sox come to mind, as did the Phillies and Angels for years) and large-revenue teams in smaller markets (the Cardinals and, for a time, the Mariners,) in part because teams that are well-run and gin up fan interest keep the money that they generate. Blank knows a thing or two about making consumers like a product and making that product appear cool and fresh. The Braves' problem right now, aside from the ennui caused by the same season happening over and over every year since 2000, is that they aren't new and fresh and the Atlanta sports market, lacking the tradition of the dinosaur markets of the Northeast and Midwest, is trend-oriented. If anyone can make them new and fresh, it's Blank.

3. Arthur is a smart guy and hopefully, he's learned from Peerless Price, namely that getting emotionally involved in negotiations is never a good idea. He's smart enough to understand that a bad free agent signing in baseball will stay with the Braves like herpes. He also understands the impact that good decisions have on revenue in baseball is far stronger than the impact that good decisions have in the socialist NFL. It's probably unfair of me to assume that Arthur isn't a living, growing organism.

4. He's a Member of the Tribe. Red Auerbach, the most successful owner in American team sports history, is a Member of the Tribe. Prepare for eight straight titles. (At a minimum, he would have vetoed the Jason Marquis trade and done his best to acquire Shawn Green, Mike Lieberthal, and Kevin Youklis.) Plus, Bud Selig is a Member of the Tribe, a fact that we don't like to admit too often, but one that might mean special treatment from the commish. After all, we Jews are known for conspiring together to screw our enemies.

The Braves are the Favorite and the Mets Spent a Lot of Money

Some real cutting edge analysis from John Donovan of SI.com about the NL East. In a related note, Donovan expects that the baseballs used by MLB this year will be round, dispelling the rumors that Bud Selig wants oblong balls to compete with the NFL. A few thoughts on the issues raised in the article:

1. I'm sure I'm not alone if thinking excessively optimistically about the Braves (at least as far as the regular season is concerned,) but I caught myself this morning scoffing at the Mets' line-up as being full of injury risks (Pedro headlines the rotation, Cliff Floyd is going to be protecting Carlos Delgado in the line-up, Billy Wagner is closing and due for another huge elbow injury,) while dismissing in my head the fact that the Braves' rotation is headlined by John Smoltz, whose elbow was purple by the end of last season, Tim Hudson, who pencils in a one-month oblique muscle vacation the way I pencil in a one-week European vacation every November to coincide with Michigan and Georgia's bye-weeks, and John Thomson, who was out for most of 2005.

2. The article mentioned the Braves' bullpen questions, as every article will this spring, but I'm optimistic for two reasons. First, this is the area in which Roger McDowell is supposed to have the greatest impact. As much as we all adored Leo, he was responsible (at least in part) for last year's wretched 'pen. If we want to give him credit for Jorge Sosa, then doesn't he deserve some blame for Dan Kolb? Second, Donovan mentions the Nats' excellent 'pen, but who the hell had heard of Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski, or Luis Ayala last February? Relievers are inherently unreliable because their small sample size of innings can lead to some very skewed results. (There are limited exceptions to this, like Mariano Rivera or Billy Wagner. The Mets weren't insane to pay through the nose for Wagner. Paying a lot for a proven commodity isn't a bad idea [although a four-year deal for a closer who's going to turn 35 this July and whose body doesn't seem as if it will be able to continue to create the kind of torque that is required for a 99-mph fastball is questionable.]) Spending a lot of money on Todd Jones or Dannys Baez would have been a big mistake. Anyway, to get back to the Braves, if one understands that relievers are unreliable, then the solution is not to bring in a bunch of big-names who had a good ERA last year, but instead to bring in a whole bunch of guys and then see who's pitching well in March. If finding good relievers is random like Russian roulette, then the objective is to take as many shots as possible. (I ultimately realized that the same principle applies to dating. If it's hard to find a good-looking, clever, non-crazy woman who actually likes me, then the objective should be to meet as many women as possible. That and change your hairdo. Anyway, that's Michael on women. We'll be back on Blind Date after this commercial break.)

3. Related to the Russian roulette point: the health of starting pitchers is a similar crapshoot, which is why I'm happy that the Braves have six starters ready for Spring Training. With Smoltz, Hudson, and Thomson all health risks, having Horacio Ramirez, Jorge Sosa, and Kyle Davies around will be important. And if there are two injuries? Then I guess we say "hi" to Chuck James.

4. The "who's going to lead-off?" question doesn't bother me at all. There is a well-defined idea as to what a lead-off hitter should be: small, fast, and preferably with little power. But most of that's irrelevant. What a lead-off hitter needs to do is simply get on base and the Braves have players who can do that, even if they won't be able to steal 40+ bases like Furcal. The Braves slumped last year when Furcal was playing terribly and they played very well when he caught fire, but it wasn't his speed that was critical. It was simply the fact that Giles, Chipper, and Andruw came up to the plate with Furcal on base instead of Furcal in the dugout after another weak ground-out.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

One of the Regrets of My Life

I don't have any crazy friends from Texas who incorporated cowboy hats into the groomsman outfits and thus gave me an excuse to look like that. (That image is from Ryan Langerhans' wedding and he's accompanied by Nick Green, Matt Belisle, Kelly Johnson, Ryan Langerhans, Adam LaRoche, M-Braves coach Phil Wellman and Pete Orr.)

Come to think of it, I have a friend from college who's a big Yankees fan and is getting married soon. Maybe he's going to make his groomsmen grow wispy mustaches and wear starter jackets, air-brushed Derek Jeter t-shirts, and gold chains to his wedding. We can only dare to dream.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Some Pre-World Cup Buzz

I stole this post from the soccer expert on The Victors Board. Aside from his inability to spell Ronaldinho and his tendency to overrate French players, AdamantiumBlue is always a good source of information. He follows the Bundeliga and Championnat, neither of which I can be persuaded to follow closely. Anyway, his thoughts are below, with my comments in CAPS:

Time to start keeping tabs on who is in great form going into the cup. Taking a look at some of the top players:

Premiership- As I posted the other day, Cristano Ronaldo appears to have taken that giant step from a flash player to scary good. He has 4 goals in his last two games, and one of them was a real cracker from long range. Portugal made the Euro finals with a young Ronaldo that was mostly flash. Antrade is considered the best defender in the Spainish League (plays for Celta) and Carvhalo is pretty well respected at Chelsea. Add in Deco in midfield, and Portugal is shaping up as a decent contender (and may have a healthy Simao this time to add some speed opposite CR).


Another player to note, Hernan Crespo is really in top form at Chelsea. Argentina will come in with one of the top two or three defenses in the World and if they have an in-form striker to go with the young playmmaker (Riquelme)-look out. the defender Walter Samuel is routinely named one of the top 11 players in Serie A this season as well.


Bundesliga- Michael Ballack has grabbed the gamewinner two weeks in a row and Bayern are strolling through the league. The key player on the home team, Ballack's play is enough to pencil Germany through to the playoff rounds in a group with a very weak draw. Add in the fact that both Jens Lehmann and Oliver Kahn are playing some of their best that they have in years, and there is some reason for optimism. That optimism grew even stronger when Polish goaltender Jerzy Dudek looked like complete crap when filling in for the suspended Reina (nice acting Robben). The Polish defense is descent, but a bit too slow and flatfooted to cover for an out of form goaltender. Speaking of which, Tim Howard is starting to get looks again at Man U. Up 3-0 and with Van dersaar having had a horrific week or two recently, Howard found himself starting the second half this week.


Defensively, keep an eye on Dutch defender Boulahrouz. Hamburg had one heck of a defensive run going for most of the first half of the season, and Boularouz was right in the middle of it. He has been joined by countryman De Jong at the winter break. The Serb Krastyek is considered the best central defender in the Bundesliga (along with Bayern's Brazilian big man Lucio), but after the 7-4, 11 goal, marathon between Schalke and Leverkusen this past weekend, I don't think any defender made it to the lockeroom with a good tongue lashing from their respective coaches.


And the outstanding play of one young Hamburg player is going to leave Klinsmann with a very tough choice. He has already brought a half dozen young players into the team, but right now the second best midifielder in the entire league after Ballack is Piotr Trochowski of Hamburg. He is really in amazing form and a major part of the reason that Hamburg has spent the season as one of the top two or three teams in the league, but a crowded midfield that is pretty well estabalished and Klinsmann's fear of introducing far too many young players already will likely keep Trochowski out of the national team. Trochowski was part of the amazing Bayern youth team of a few years ago that featured Lahm, Schweinsteigger, Trochowski, Feulner and Lell. He got a number of starts for Bayern before moving to Hamburg for an everyday role, and he has truely soared as an up and coming star this season (he, Marcel Jansel a big, speedy left side winger/defender, and Kiessling- a tall forward-are the youngsters that have really established themselves as young stars this season-with Podolski coming on at Cologne as well under the new coach).


Serie A- the hottest team in Europe right now is Roma and the player at the center of the attention is Francesco Totti. Totti is scoring and sliding back into a playmaking role that has seen Roma win 9 straight and is now one win away from tying the most successful Italian teams of all time for consecutive wins. This could be a huge sign of life for the doormant Italian national team that has been very dull on the international scene the past few internationals. The infamous spitting scene in Euro 2004 left the Italians devoid of a playmaker and struggling for wins against the Scandanavian duo of Sweden and Denmark. In qualifiers they couldn't come up with an impressive road win and lost to friggen Slovenia. They have the forwards in Gilardino and Toni, but the key is a playmaker to put the ball through, and an in-form Totti would make a huge difference in a tough group (Czech, USA, Ghana).


The top team in Serie A is Juventus and the key players are the all star combo of Nedved, Viera, Emerson and Trezeguet. Ibramovich will be a force for Sweden, but the Viera/Trezeguet combo could be interesting for the French. As Grits [THAT'S ME!!!]loves to point out, on the international scene it is Trezeguet rather than Henry that has the greater impact in how well the French do in a given tourney. [ACTUALLY, I JUST LIKE TO RAG ON HENRY.] Granted the French have had some struggles in the qualifiers, but they seem infused with some fresh defenders - Revilrie and Abidal (Lyon); Givet (Monaco); Mexes (Roma) to go with veterans Sagnol, Gallas, and Thuram and their weakness has only been scoring goals. The loss of Viera has been devastating for Arsenal, who can't seem to find any real spark this season, but it could be a boom for France if the chemistry he has found with Trezeguet at the club level can translate at the international scene.


Nedved also appears to be staying relatively healthy. The Czechs will be an interesting team to watch, but how deep they can go may depend on getting big man Jan Koller healthy. It will be very close to see whether he has recovered from his surgery in time for the Cup. In the midfield, though, Rosicky is healthy and in outstanding form (defensive injuries and youth are plaguing Dortmund which are starting a 16 year old), but Rosicky is in outstanding form. Keep an eye on Jiri Stajner (Hannover) though. He may be one of the ugliest forwards in the game (looks like a guy that played Igor in one of those bad Frankenstein movies), but he does score and gives this team some depth up front. In the back, Peter Cech is just flat out as good as anyone in goal right now. The significance is that the aggressive and attacking play of the Czech national team and their head coach Karl Bruckner is even that much more aggressive when Czech and central defender Ufalusi are in good form, as everyone else on the entire team will join an all out attack when they feel secure at the back.


In Spain- another young player who is making the transition from flashy to scary good is Robinho. He scored again this weekend for Real, and, if you haven't seen him play, just look for the guy that looks like he is twice as fast as everyone else on the field. Seriously, this dude can just flat out fly, and gives Brazil yet another dynamic scoring option. He is truely scary looking.


For the Spainish national team, they need to keep some midfielders healthy. In the center, Alonso may have to take on a bigger role as the Barcelona one (forget which one is Xavi and which one is Xabi) (IT'S XAVI) has struggled through injuries this year. They also need a fully fit Joaquin on the right side. They were the most exciting side at Euro 2004, but got burned with cynical tactics trying to coast through the group. Hopefully, they just turn everyone loose for the Cup, but placing your hopes on Spain to turn really show up for a Cup is like betting the house on Michigan in South Bend (even when it sounds good on paper, it is a dumb bet).


Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Little Fight from the Thrashers

After a seven-game losing streak that looked like it had killed their season (and possibly the jobs of Bob Hartley and/or Don Waddell,) the Thrashers had a big week leading up to the Olympic break, winning three out of four, including big wins on the road against Ottawa and Montreal that were headlined by great play by Kari Lehtonen. When the Thrashers were starting their collection of opening acts and roadies in goal earlier in the year, they positively could not win games in which they failed to score four goals. In the last two games, which were dubbed must-win by the hardy few members of the Atlanta media who pay attention to our local hockey collective, the Thrashers have scored a whopping three goals in regulation, but they've taken four points nonetheless.

So now, we go into a 17-day hibernation period, hoping that all of our playres come back from Turin healthy, and then we start the 24-game, 49-day sprint to the finish. Anything is possible with this team, as they've played significant stretches where they've been damn-near unbeatable, along with stretches in which they would have struggled to take a point off of the Damian Rhodes-Hnat Domenichelli-Denny Lambert Thrasher teams from the franchise's infancy. They're two points behind the Canadiens, who have two games in hand, and a point behind the Maple Leafs, who have one game in hand. There's no much time remaining in the season that there's no reason to panic, but another wretched stretch will mean that Philips Arena will still be playoff-less (excluding the Georgia Force.)

Same Old Song

This chart nicely summarizes the Hawks' season. For the umpteenth time in 05-06, the Hawks were in position to win a game in the final six minutes and then collapsed. The particulars this time? Down 87-86 with 3:44 to go; lost 99-91. Josh Smith gave them nothing: two points and three rebounds on a night that they got killed on the glass. Harrington, Childress, and Zaza played well, while Joe Johnson struggled with his shot. Johnson did have 11 assists and the team had 25 assists against 15 turnovers, but one would expect that sort of total playing against the worst defensive team in the NBA. Speaking of which, the 91 points the Sonics allowed were the lowest total scored against Seattle since November 18. Yay!

Friday, February 10, 2006

For Those of Us Who Root against England in International Football...

...this is some encouraging news:

"It's time for a British Manager."

I was all worried that England might get a manager like Guus Hiddink or "Big Phil" Scolari to manage their surfeit of talent after Sven rides off into the sunset, but thankfully, the English are going to stick with their jingoistic tendency to appoint from within and will instead apparently look to the managers laboring in mid-table obscurity (one of my favorite soccer teams that needs to be incorporated in the U.S.) in the Premiership, a league where the best teams all have foreign managers. English football suffers from two major problems: an inability to produce really good coaches (at least since Bobby Robson) and an inability to produce really good goalkeepers (at least since Gordon Banks.) The goalkeeping issue will remain with them; the coaching issue doesn't have to.

(For the uninitiated, the image above is of Dennis Bergkamp knocking the English out of qualifying for the '94 World Cup, thus sparing at least two American cities from being burned to the ground.)

Update: a commenter helpfully pointed out that Martin O'Neill is a fine manager, but he's Northern Irish and in terms of international football, is as foreign as Hiddink or Scolari. The Guardian elaborates. Also, it can't be encouraging for English fans to see the headline "Destroying the Beautiful Game" applied for the favorite to be the next manager of England. And here I was thinking that the Irish are the only national side from the British Isles who play boring, unattractive football; the English might be about to imitate them.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mike Vick Speaks!!! Someone Get the Kremlinologists Out of Mothballs!

Our fearless leader has spoken on the Falcons' (and his) disappointing 2005 season. Get ready for some real hard-hitting analysis! The reasons why Vick struggled are:

1. I was injured!

His right knee was banged up after the fourth game. I have little sympathy for this excuse. First, most or all NFL players play banged up after the first 1-2 months of the season. Tom Brady, for instance, played most of the season with a sports hernia and still had one of his best seasons statistically. Vick exposes himself to more hits than the average quarterback and he's not the most durable of players, so if anyone needs to learn how to play at less than 100%, it's him. This has been a criticism ever since his glacial return from the broken ankle in 2003. Second, reduced mobility should have been a spur for Vick to emphasize his passing skills. The fact that he was unsuccessful when doing so is a cause for concern, since the rap on him right now is that he's a great athlete who doesn't understand how to play the quarterback position properly.

2. My teammates aren't that good!

I just love hearing this from the leader of the team:

"I can't really just take over a game by myself. I can step my game up to another level and encourage guys and try to make plays but those other 10 guys around me have to do their jobs too. Same thing goes for the defense. The point I'm trying to make is I can't do it all by myself."

No, but is it too much to ask that you finish higher than 25th in passer rating or 26th in yards per attempt? I guess it must be the fault of your teammates that the team went 8-8.

3. We don't run the West Coast Offense properly!

"I thought the West Coast offense was supposed to be a lot of quick, dink-and-dunk passes and it's not being run that way. I'm not saying it's because of coach Knapp, but he's calling the plays. My perception of the West Coast thing is starting to change too. We're not doing what I see Seattle doing or San Francisco doing or Green Bay doing. We're not doing those things. I don't know if it's Knapp changing those things around but as far as I know, it's not the West Coast system as far as the way we run it.

"We're not dinking and dunking the way it's supposed to be done. It may be hurting me. It may be hurting the offense. I'm a little lost right now."

This is true. The Falcons don't run the timing routes that are a staple of the Bill Walsh WCO. Could that be because our quarterback isn't that accurate? In Vick's defense, the offense also requires precise route-running, and the team's young set of receivers aren't ready to meet that challenge. Michael Jenkins and Roddy White were both raw coming out of college and they have a combined three years of NFL experience, so trusting them to get to the right spot at the right time would be a dangerous gamble. Generally, I agree that it's hard to figure out what the Falcons are trying to accomplish on offense. They don't threaten opponents down the field, and yet they aren't running a classic WCO, either. The routes mostly seem to be "run 12 yards and cut."

4. The Running Game Didn't Save Me!

"The only thing I need to do is get with Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, work with them and stay healthy. If I can do that then I got a shot, we've got a chance. Offensively and defensively, we've got to come to play. Everybody has to do his job. Offensively, that starts up from with the running game. Going down the stretch the end of the year our running game fell off. We couldn't do the things we wanted to do.

"Teams were keying on what we were going to do, our blocking schemes and everything that goes into it. It just didn't work and it hurt our offense. I've just got to be healthy — and confident."

Not to blame everything on Vick, but again, do you think that the running game fell off because the team did not have much of a passing threat? In fairness to Michael, there might have been a cause-and-effect phenomenon between his lack of running and the diminished production of the running game generally. The Falcons' running game has been successful for the last three years because Vick's running ability forces opposing defensive ends to stay at home and it terrifies linebackers and safeties of bootlegs so they can't take a good first step towards a running play. Assuming that opposing defenses figured out that Vick wasn't the same running threat, they could have committed quicker to stop Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Vick say "I need to get better as a passer." In sum, Vick illustrated all of the major criticisms of his play in one article, not unlike Forrest Gump compressing every major event and social trend over a 30-year period into one maudlin movie.

One more caveat in favor of Vick: his answers about his brother were mature. Specifically, he admitted that Virginia Tech had to kick him off of the team:

Q. You have been loyal to Virginia Tech. Has the school's dismissal of Marcus changed your feelings about Tech?

A. "No. Absolutely not. That was a situation where after he did what he did in that game (stomped on Louisville's Elvis Dumervil in the Toyota Gator Bowl) it embarrassed the school. A lot of people wanted to see some type of punishment. He deserved what he got. Marc shouldn't have done what he did. I was the first to ask him, 'Why did you do what you did?' "I'm not bitter at all. They made their decision. What can I say?

"They've given Marc so many chances. They've dealt with a lot. It came to a point where they couldn't take any more."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thank G-d for the Cheetah

I'm at a loss to otherwise explain how our beloved Hawks beat the Pistons last night, narrowing the gap between our local basketball collective and the #1 seed in the East to a mere 24 games. The Hawks now have wins over the Pistons and the Spurs, the two favorites to meet in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, they can't beat the Velociraptors. Do the best teams come in that overconfident, whereas the weaker teams play their best game, knowing that Philips is their best spot for a road win? Do we have a young team that's capable of playing with the best teams, but are too young to be able to motivate themselves on a nightly basis over an 82-game marathon? And where am I, anyway?

The most encouraging sign from last night, as well as the Hawks' strong play over the past five games, has been Joe Johnson turning from a good player into a very good player; 21.4 ppg, 6.6 apg (against 2.8 turnovers per game,) and a .513 shooting percentage over a five-game stretch is nothing to sneeze at. Last night, he was 12 of 17 from the field against a team full of good defenders and he kept the Hawks in the game so that their surge at the end meant something. I speculated at the start of the season that the team's best backcourt would be Johnson and Salim Stoudamire. The team's horrific play in January when Tyronne Lue was hurt refuted that thought, but their solid play last night was highly encouraging. Stoudamire provides instant offense and this Hawks team isn't good enough to leave offensive production on the bench. On the other hand, he's a major defensive liability against bigger point guards like Chauncey Billups, so Royal Ivey is still necessary. Mike Woodson likes having Ivey and Childress on the court, especially at the end of games, because they provide more defense than the other options at their positions, but their limited offensive games really put pressure on Johnson and Al Harrington to score.

Assorted other thoughts on the game:

1. The arena was almost full (and not entirely with the armada of transplants who show up to watch the Pistons, a team that couldn't draw when they sucked in the 90s) and it was quite loud towards the end when it became apparent that the Hawks were going toe-to-toe with the best team in the league. Anyone who doesn't think that this town wouldn't support a winning NBA team (read: Bill Simmons) is nuts. And Atlanta carries the advantage that the crowd actually looks something like the players on the court, unlike other cities in the NBA (read: Boston). (If only there was a 5'10 white guy with red hair and a left shoulder scar.)
We even got a guest appearance from Dem Franchize Boyz last night, who had helpfully papered the lightpostz leading away from Philipz with posterz advertizing their new album. Unfortunately, I have no idea who DFB are, but I'm now delusionally thinking that I'm hip because I saw them on the Jumbotron and listened to KanYe on the way home. The celebrity list last night included Chris Tucker (who must be our Jack Nicholson, since he's at just about every game,) LenDale White, and two ex-Hawks I had never heard of.

2. If Detroit fanz (this "z" thing is quite addictive) want to blame anyone for the game, then 'Sheed and his three for 14 shooting (without attempting a single free throw) might be a good place to start. He also drew a highly debatable technical for hitting the basket support. Basically, he'll get T'd up for anything other than smiling at the ref and saying "thank you sir, may I have another." I feel bad for him, but he made his own bed with that epic performance in 2000-01. I also would have been furious at him if Billups would have caught the final pass cleanly and beaten the Hawks with a jumper, since 'Sheed set an obviously illegal screen to free Chauncey.

3. Josh Smith, where are you? Four points, four rebounds, five fouls. Thankfully, no turnovers. Josh Childress got the playing time down the stretch and had a decent ten-point game, but he and Marvin Williams both have a maddening tendency to shoot jumpers with their heels on the three-point line. Rick Pitino would burn them at the stake for such a sin, as would most people with a slight understanding of expected outcomes.

4. Hats off to Zaza: 16 points, nine rebounds, a big dunk late in the game, two clutch free throws, and he did a good job battling Ben Wallace, forcing Big Ben to go over his back (without a call, natch) on the final possession.

5. Want another key to the game? 22 assists against 13 turnovers for the Hawks. The team definitely did a better job taking care of the basketball, and they did so in their first game after Tyronne Lue was injured in practice. Don't ask me to explain.

Overall, last night was hopefully a major step forward, but we'll only know after the upcoming three-game Western swing against Seattle, Sacramento, and the Lakers. The Hawks haven't won a game in the Pacific Time Zone since November 2003 (and Dion Glover was the leading scorer in that win over Phoenix, which ought to tell you what an anomaly that was.) If they are to build on a solid five-game stretch, then they have to show that they can beat teams not named Charlotte on the road. Seattle and Sacto are a combined 16 games under .500; those games are winnable (relatively speaking.) In years past, at this stage in the season, I've been hoping for the Hawks to lose enough games to get maximal lottery balls, but this year is different because of the absence of a great point guard or center prospect in the Draft, as well as the fact that this team is young and needs to start playing better together.

Monday, February 06, 2006

And now, for something completely different

You may think that a sports blog might spend the Monday after the Super Bowl discussing that event, even if Atlanta, for the 39th time in the past 40 editions of the Biggest Football Game Ever Played!!!, did not have a dog in the fight (although Georgia fans will point out that there was a Dawg prominently involved.) You might also think that someone who lived in Pittsburgh from ages seven to nine, his prime formative football era, and who draped an old Terrible Towel on his entertainment center for the game might want to discuss it in detail. But, I'm just not feeling it today, partly because the game was non-descript and partly out of guilt that I am a sports bigamist, rooting for the Steelers and the Falcons. The magic of blogging is that I get to write about whatever grabs my fancy and today, my fancy has been claimed not by the Super Bowl, but instead, by Munich, or more precisely, the criticism of the movie.

The wife and I trekked up to Shallowford on Friday night to complete the Herculean task of seeing the last of the five Best Picture candidates. I expected to be angry about the movie, based on the criticism that it paints too negative a view of the Israelis who are exacting revenge on the perpetrators of the Munich slaughter or too positive a view of the slaughterers. I came in with the opinion that Operation Wrath of G-d was an entirely appropriate response to the slaughter and I still hold that belief. That said, the criticism of Munich is of a movie other than the one I saw on Friday night. Either someone at the Regal 24 screwed up and showed a "Director's Cut" done by Shimon Peres or the critics are full of it. (Spoilers to follow.)

Here's Charles Krauthammer's criticism of the movie. Krauthammer falls within the realm of conservatives whom I can respect and will listen to, partly because he's generally conservative on foreign policy/military issues, where I can see myself falling towards the right (or at least the center) and partly because he supports Israel. That said, he's off the reservation on Munich:

If Steven Spielberg had made a fictional movie about the psychological disintegration of a revenge assassin, that would have been fine. Instead, he decided to call this fiction "Munich" and root it in a historical event: the 1972 massacre by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games. Once you've done that -- evoked the killing of innocents who, but for Palestinian murderers, would today be not much older than Spielberg himself -- you have an obligation to get the story right and not to use the victims as props for any political agenda, let alone for the political agenda of those who killed them. The only true part of the story is the few minutes spent on the massacre. The rest is invention, as Spielberg delicately puts it in the opening credits, "inspired by real events."

True, but the subject of Operation Wrath of G-d is so shrouded in mystery that some license with the facts is necessary, and Krauthammer's criticism isn't with the "facts" set forth in the movie, but rather in the characterization.

By real events? Rubbish. Inspired by Tony Kushner's belief (he co-wrote the screenplay) that the founding of Israel was a "historical, moral, political calamity" for the Jewish people.

This is Krauthammer attacking the author of the script, not the actual content. And, he ignores the fact that the script was mostly written by Eric Roth and was based on a piece of history by George Jonas called "Vengeance," so attacking Kushner is something of a red herring, not unlike liberals blaming anything and everything on Karl Rove.

It is an axiom of filmmaking that you can only care about a character you know. In "Munich," the Israeli athletes are not only theatrical but historical extras, stick figures. Spielberg dutifully gives us their names -- Spielberg's List -- and nothing more: no history, no context, no relationships, nothing. They are there to die. The Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given -- with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman -- texture, humanity, depth, history. The first Palestinian we meet is the erudite translator of poetry giving a public reading, then acting kindly toward an Italian shopkeeper -- before he is shot in cold blood by Jews. Then there is the elderly PLO member who dotes on his 7-year-old daughter before being blown to bits. Not one of these plotters is ever shown plotting Munich, or any other atrocity for that matter. They are shown in the full flower of their humanity, savagely extinguished by Jews.

This argument makes me wonder whether Krauthammer actually saw the film, or at least whether he didn't go to the theater assuming that liberal Hollywood is incapable of presenting the Munich massacre "fairly" and was going to pan it no matter what. Yes, we don't get a lot of background on the Israeli athletes who were murdered at Munich, but the movie opens with them being roused from their sleep by a bunch of raving lunatics with AK-47s and it ends with them being shot in a defenseless posture on helicopters. Their murder is accompanied early in the film by shots of Israeli families crying, Palestinians celebrating, and the victims' images being shown on a TV screen while "Hatikvah" (a really moving national anthem for a situation like this, but I'm biased) is played. How in the world is Spielberg not going to make us feel emotional about their murder?

And as to the point that the Palestinians are given "texture, humanity, depth, history," that's hardly true. The first victim is shown buying groceries, as if that is supposed to make me feel close to him. The second is shown with his daughter, but that image cuts both ways, as the Israeli team tries mightily to off the father without harming the daughter, a plain contrast to the terrorists who consciously tried to kill civilians. The remaining Palestinian targets are not shown doing anything that would make us like or respect them. Yes, the planning stages are not shown, but Spielberg (and the devious mastermind Kushner) have only a limited amount of time to tell their story (they use three hours, as is) and had to make choices. The fact that they chose to focus on the revenge, rather than the initial bad act, is a perfectly respectable choice.

But the most shocking Israeli brutality involves the Dutch prostitute -- apolitical, beautiful, pathetic -- shot to death, naked, of course, by the now half-crazed Israelis settling private business. The Israeli way, I suppose.

Yes, Charles, a Dutch prostitute who murdered one of Avner's (the Israeli protagonist) team members by blowing out the back of his head is "pathetic" and the Israelis are "half-crazed" for killing her after she killed one of their own. You've nailed it. And that scene where Avner wept over his dead friend, thus making the audience understand perfectly his reason for vengeance? Good job ignoring that little piece of evidence.

Even more egregious than the manipulation by character is the propaganda by dialogue. The Palestinian case is made forthrightly: The Jews stole our land and we're going to kill any Israeli we can to get it back. Those who are supposedly making the Israeli case say . . . the same thing. The hero's mother, the pitiless committed Zionist, says: We needed the refuge. We seized it. Whatever it takes to secure it. Then she ticks off members of their family lost in the Holocaust.

Spielberg makes the Holocaust the engine of Zionism and its justification. Which, of course, is the Palestinian narrative. Indeed, it is the classic narrative for anti-Zionists, most recently the president of Iran, who says that Israel should be wiped off the map. And why not? If Israel is nothing more than Europe's guilt trip for the Holocaust, then why should Muslims have to suffer a Jewish state in their midst?

It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian. Jewish history did not begin with Kristallnacht. The first Zionist Congress occurred in 1897. The Jews fought for and received recognition for the right to establish a "Jewish national home in Palestine" from Britain in 1917 and from the League of Nations in 1922, two decades before the Holocaust.

But the Jewish claim is far more ancient. If the Jews were just seeking a nice refuge, why did they choose the malarial swamps and barren sand dunes of 19th-century Palestine? Because Israel was their ancestral home, site of the first two Jewish commonwealths for a thousand years -- long before Arabs, long before Islam, long before the Holocaust. The Roman destructions of 70 A.D and 135 A.D. extinguished Jewish independence but never the Jewish claim and vow to return home. The Jews' miraculous return 2,000 years later was tragic because others had settled in the land and had a legitimate competing claim. Which is why Jews have for three generations offered to partition the house. The Arab response in every generation has been rejection, war and terrorism.

This claim is simply ludicrous up until the final three sentences. Yes, Spielberg views Israel through the prism of the Holocaust, as do many Jews. The fact that he chose to justify Israel's existence through characters making reference to the Shoah is completely reasonable. It's true that Jews had been advocating that they regain their homeland for thousands of years before the Holocaust, but Spielberg (and the Israeli characters) are exactly right that the Holocaust was the spur that got the major powers off their ass to give the Jews a chunk of our Promised Land. The fact that claims had been made unsuccessfully for centuries prior to 1945 only bolsters the connection between Israel's founding and the Holocaust. And if Kushner is trying to delegitimize Israel, why on earth would he include numerous references in the script to the Holocaust, a subject that universally creates sympathy for Jews (except, I suppose, in Iran, where it is both a subject of glee and something that never existed.)

Krauthammer then makes a truly bad argument, claiming that because Iran's President correctly judges that Israel's right to exist (or at least the legitimacy of its founding) is bound up to a significant degree in the unprecedented slaughter of Jews in Europe and therefore feels the need to deny the Holocaust, that it's improper to work off the assumption that he's trying so hard to negate. If anything, Mr. Ahmadinejad's efforts to deny the Holocaust demonstrate its importance to Israel's justification. Krauthammer acts as if the Jews' long-standing claims to the land should be the justification, instead of the Holocaust, but our claim to the land is no different than that of the Palestinians. They had it, then we had it, then they had it, etc. That doesn't get anyone anywhere. We need it because numerous maniacs have tried to kick us out of countries or wipe us off the earth altogether? That's a justification that the Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world) can't match, which is why Ahmadinejad has to try to change history to justify his call to wipe Israel off the map.

And Munich. Munich, the massacre, had only modest success in launching the Palestinian cause with the blood of 11 Jews. "Munich," the movie, has now made that success complete 33 years later. No longer is it crude, grainy TV propaganda. "Munich" now enjoys high cinematic production values and the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg, no less, carrying the original terrorists' intended message to every theater in the world.

Are you f***ing kidding me? This movie is more successful for highlighting the Palestinian cause than the act of bringing the Olympics to a halt by murdering 11 Jews? I'd expect that sort of overwrought rhetoric from NewsMax, not a respected opinionista. Do the Palestinians really want the re-telling of the murder of a number of bound athletes in a helicopter to highlight their plight? Wouldn't Kushner rather have made some sort of fictionalized account of the "massacre" at Jenin if that was his goal? After all, if he isn't bound by facts, that would be a good place to start.

This is hardly surprising, considering that "Munich's" case for the moral bankruptcy of the Israeli cause -- not just the campaign to assassinate Munich's planners but the entire enterprise of Israel itself -- is so thorough that the movie concludes with the lead Mossad assassin, seared by his experience, abandoning Israel forever. Where does the hero resettle? In the only true home for the Jew of conscience, sensitivity and authenticity: Brooklyn.

I understand that different people can take different messages from movies. My Mom thought that Schindler's List highlighted that there are good people in even the most horrible environs and events; my high school debate coach took from it an indictment of capitalism. That said, there's no way that anyone without a blinding agenda could watch Munich and think that it de-legitimizes Israel's right to exist. Character after character make the point that Israel has to defend itself and cannot let the massacre of its athletes go unpunished. It's true that Avner and most of his team members end up disillusioned by the process, but newsflash to Charles and the chickenhawks whom he often defends: war is a disillusioning process, even if the cause is just. Soldiers (especially those in the infantry who saw the killing up close) often come home feeling manipulated after having fought with their own hands. That's a natural reaction to an inherently unnatural situation. The best American war movies have made this point clear, but all Charles has to do for illustration is go to any support group for Vietnam vets. No one thinks that the U.S. is illegitimate because so many of our citizens go to war and find the process disillusioning. This is especially true for Avner, who did not fight men in Palestinian uniforms, but rather was forced to kill men who looked like civilians and his only basis for doing so was trusting his orders. Much as I love James Bond movies, Avner's reaction seems a lot more consistent with how I think someone in his position would react to doing his job than my beloved Mr. Bond would.

And thanks for mentioning that the movie ends in Brooklyn. Charles, I'm puzzled as to why don't you also mention that the final shot is one of the World Trade Center? If Kushner wanted to turn Americans against Israel, why make reference to an attack that Americans universally regard as an evil slaughter of the innocents and thereby connect it to Munich?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Some Signing Day Observations

1. SEC schools signed 14 of the top 30 players on the ESPN 150($). They signed nine of the top 30 on Rivals.com's top 100, including the top two. It stands to reason that SEC teams would do so well, given that they're in a talent-rich reason that is crazier about football (and therefore has a greater high school football tradition) than just about any other part of the country. Still, kudos to the coaches in the conference for pulling in such a haul. Also, seven different programs pulled in players from ESPN's top 30, which is solid evidence that the conference remains deep. Contrast the SEC's recruiting haul to that of the Pac Ten. USC, as usual, pulled in an outstanding class, pulling in five of ESPN's top 30 players (and six of Rivals.com's top 30.) In contrast, the rest of the conference failed to sign a single player in the top 30 of either list. The highest ranked players on the two lists who signed with Pac Ten teams not sharing a nickname with a prophylactic device were ESPN #41 Terrence Austin (UCLA) and Rivals #68 Jake Locker (Washington.) In a nutshell, this is why USC is as dominant as any program in my lifetime. They combine an outstanding recruiting staff (starting with an energetic head coach who can sell NFL knowledge and two national championship rings) with a talent-rich region and a set of rivals who apparently can't recruit their way out of the proverbial paper bag. The only time USC will be playing a team that even resembles their talent level will be when they take on Notre Dame. This reality is a giant compliment to USC, an indictment of the rest of the Pac Ten, and something of a confirmation of the sentiment of SEC fans that USC's road to the national title game would be harder in a different conference.

[An addition: I stole this from Shumway on the Victors board, but here is the breakdown of where the members of the Rivals 250 signed and the SEC is miles ahead of anyone else:

SEC (79)
19 Florida
13 Georgia
13 Auburn
11 LSU
9 Alabama
3 Tennessee
3 Ole Miss
3 Arkansas
3 South Carolina
1 Mississippi State
1 Kentucky
0 Vanderbilt

ACC (40)
14 Florida State
7 Miami-FL
7 Clemson
3 Maryland
2 Virginia Tech
2 Virginia
2 North Carolina
1 Georgia Tech
1 Duke
1 Boston College
0 Wake Forest
0 NC State

Pac-10 (38)
16 Southern Cal
7 California
4 Arizona
3 Arizona State
2 Washington
1 Oregon State
0 Wash. St.
0 Stanford
0 Oregon

Big Ten (38)
14 Penn State
11 Michigan
9 Ohio State
2 Iowa
2 Illinois
0 Wisconsin
0 Purdue
0 Northwestern
0 Minnesota
0 Michigan State
0 Indiana

Big 12 (34)
13 Texas
9 Oklahoma
5 Oklahoma State
3 Texas Tech
2 Texas A&M
1 Nebraska
1 Kansas State
0 Missouri
0 Kansas
0 Iowa State
0 Colorado
0 Baylor

Others (11)
11 Notre Dame

Big East (9)
5 Pittsburgh
2 Louisville
1 South Florida
1 Rutgers
0 West Virginia
0 Syracuse
0 Connecticut
0 Cincinnati

The Big Ten was dominated by their big three. The Big XII was dominated by their big two. The Pac Ten was dominated by their big one. The ACC was dominated by Florida State, Miami, and Clemson (standing in for Virginia Tech, I guess.) The SEC, on the other hand, had a broad distribution of talent.]

2. On a related note, if you need any confirmation as to the differences between Charlie Weis and Ty Willingham (and further evidence that Notre Dame giving Weis an extension in year one when they did not do so for Willingham was a rational decision,) look at Willingham's first class at Washington. The first full class for a new coach is typically his best (which is why ND and Florida fans shouldn't get too carried away by their classes, since they are partially the result of "we're building something big!" euphoria. Al Groh pulled in a huge first class at Virginia and has tailed off since then. Ditto for Bill Callahan at Nebraska.) They pulled in only four four-star players in Rivals' rankings and only one player who got a rating higher than 7.0 from ESPN's scouts. They signed three of the top ten players in state according to ESPN's rankings and four of the top ten according to Rivals. They missed out on the two best players in state: Taylor Mays (USC) and Steve Schilling (Michigan). They also failed to make the inroads into California that worked so well for Don James, as they did not sign any of the top 50 players in the state, according to Rivals' rankings and only two of the top 50 according to ESPN. In Willingham's defense, Washington did sign a number of JuCos, as they need immediate help, and JuCo-heavy classes tend to be underrated, but still, that's not a long-term way to build a program (unless your name is Bill Snyder.)

3. Another disappointing first full class was turned in by Steve Spurrier, who landed only one (Rivals) or two (ESPN) of the top ten players in-state. This does not do much to disabuse the notion that Steve doesn't quite have the intensity to recruit hard anymore. Spurrier did well this year, given his somewhat limited talent, but this year's 7-5 season will be the ceiling if South Carolina continues to compete against Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida with a massive talent disadvantage.

4. Someone explain Penn State to me. They pull only four of Rivals' 17 four-star recruits in-state, but they dominate in Maryland, spice in a couple blue chippers from New York, and end up with a consensus top ten class. What are they, colonists? Does JoePa have some sort of mercantilist view of the states to his east as noble savages to be tamed by growling lion sound effects?

5. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it cannot be a coincidence that Florida State always pulls in the majority of their top recruits on Signing Day. Silent verbals. I don't see how any rational fan could deny that the Noles use this tactic (not that it's that big a deal.)

6. Points to Andre Smith for creativity. I'm liking this guy already. I'm not even sure that he knows that the Bear was noted as a great blocker when he played at Alabama and his teams were always noted for their ability in that area. Of course, he also favored smaller, fitter linemen, so I'm not sure what he would have made of a 6'4, 325-pound monster.

7. And speaking of Alabama, Auburn out-fought Alabama in-state this year, pulling in seven of Rivals' 13 four-star recruits and half of the six players to whom ESPN gave ratings of 7.0 or higher. It's generally unusual for Auburn to beat Alabama in-state; they've always succeeded by combining players from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. If anything, Auburn's success illustrates that recruits aren't so much swayed by the results of the most recent season (Bama's best since 2002,) but rather, there's generally a one-year time lag and this season marked Auburn taking advantage of their 13-0 season in 2004. On the other hand, Tennessee's class showed the immediate effects of a disastrous season.

8. For the second year in a row, Georgia got a large chunk of the top of their class from out-of-state, which isn't exactly the model that any of us foresaw when Mark Richt took over the program, but it's a good sign that the program is maturing into a national power. It's also a necessity, given the fact that Georgia won't admit anybody who qualifies under the NCAA's standards. Georgia can't take a "build a wall around Georgia and that'll be enough" approach when this state is 49th in the country in SAT scores, so we can probably expect plenty of Knowshon Morenos and Na'Derris Wards in the future.

9. Nine of the 18 four- or five-star recruits in Georgia come from the Atlanta area. Since Atlanta has approximately half of the population of the state, that makes sense. I'm probably the only person who finds that sort of stat interesting.

10. The two Virginia programs got completely cleaned out in-state, signing only one (ESPN) or two (Rivals) of the top 15 players in the Commonwealth. Virginia Tech has always subsisted on classes full of diamonds in the rough and Virginia had significant staff instability at the end of the year, so this isn't surprising, but still, Virginia is an underrated state for producing great athletes and the home state teams did not do a good job of keeping that talent at home.