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Chuck Klosterman (on sports and useless certainty)

[3-minute read]
The 'o' is long.

The ‘o’ is long.

If you’ve read one of these things before, you know my schtick. (It’s not so artificial, though, not really.) I’m a confirmed Accidentalist as a reader, about the farthest imaginable distance that a member of the homo sapiens tribe can be from A) a trend-watcher, eyes peeled for the New and the Hot and the Must-Read¹ or B) somebody with a plan. Usually, that means that when I get around to reading something I wish I’d read it long before. So.

 ¹ Cases in point: I’m still smart-phone free. I drive standard. I play vinyl records and CDs.

I’ve made no sudden conversion to Column A or Column B, but am still prone to literary accidents, which is how I ran into Chuck. Klosterman’s 2016 – wait, isn’t that THIS YEAR? – book-length thought experiment But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. It’s my first book-length CK, though I used to read him often on the Grantland sports ‘n ‘popcult website (ah, Grantland, we hardly knew ye). The moral: it pays, in intellectual and vaguely spiritual terms, anyway, to go to the library. [That hyperlink right there was to a Neil Gaiman essay. You should go to it. And to the library.] BWIWW?, with its black text on white, upside-down cover, leaped into my sweaty palms from my local branch’s “Express Reads” shelf. Get it now, it’s hot, but you have only 7 days before library muscle is pounding on your door…²

² I should have bought it. Ended up costing me a $10 library fine.

It’s a smart and entertaining book, which concerns itself with “Big Potato” questions that cluster around the title query: how can we be so sure about nearly anything, when time so often (and often so quickly!) proves us to be out to lunch without a paddle? what can we safely predict about our futures? do we have even half-decent tools for justifying what we think we know for certain? Klosterman is stylish, contrarian and witty on such starchy questions as these³, there are any number of quote-worthy morsels, but I liked the one below. Sportsy readers don’t get nearly enough Cool Quotation time, so this one’s for them. And for you.

³ No small potatoes. Only big ones are his prey. “Starchy” questions. Get it, didja get it?
The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book at the back.

The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book from the back.

As he concludes the book, Klosterman turns his attention to sabermetrics, the growing movement to quantify and generally science-up the approach to appreciating and understanding sports, the teams and the athletes. Why care? you ask. I answer, Because there’s more to sports than just sweat and dunks, grunts and numbers, for one thing, but also because Klosterman makes reading about sports feel fresh and [gulp!] enlightening. He makes sport feel like a genuinely useful lens to understand human beings and their cultures. Bam. Tell the truth: you have to finish this piece now, right? And the quote is just around the bend.

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SIV Week: Devils Rule in the NCAA Roundball Arena

As mentioned over in At First Glance on Monday — I know, it says ‘April 11’ but trust me, that post leads off with several hundred outstanding words of April-fresh commentary — this is “Stubbornness is Virtue” week. That SIVW declaration gave me a timely little excuse to meditate about my mother, and the stubbornness I inherited. SIV Week is mainly dedicated to finishing and posting the incomplete essays that plague my nights, and to get old biz out of my head. Like, say, the NCAA Final Four, the result of a March Madness that ends in early April and must be written about (Rule 37.3, clauses b-e, of the Howdy Index) before May. It’s April 30, yo.

Here are the hardcourt meditations of a man too far away, for five years, to pay much televisual attention to American college basketball, and then was too immersed, upon his return to Canada, in his club and high school coaching gigs (and too resolutely cheap and determinedly active and frantically multi-interested to pay for access to spectator sports television) to watch anything the NCAA had to offer unless it was Indiana or Memphis in an Ottawa gym in August, BUT whom, when he finally started watching the Elite 8 and the Final 4, got SO stubborn that he felt he HAD to write about it even when it was one week two three weeks past…

I’m thinking about basketball an awful lot. It’s the off-season, in some ways my favourite part of the year, because next year’s team not only hasn’t lost yet but also has a potential that is unknown and therefore exciting, and players who can grow and improve so much by next November. Yes. And I do love teaching kids to play, the individual skills of the game, ways to understand sport, whereas in season there are always the team needs and, of course, the whole winning anlosing dynamic. (Reader Alert: can you smell an excuse coming?) It was, in small measure, because of basketball and off-season club commitments that I haven’t gotten around to sharing my desperately awaited insights on what was a strong and storied Final Four this year. (Though mostly, it was because of disorder, distraction and authorial dismay. I got thoroughly dissed.)

[I wrote about the “fatal four” — Elite 8 losing teams — just down below. Sorry — can’t hyperlink right now.]

Sat., April 4. (Yeeeessshh.) Wendy & Bernie’s living room. For game one of the Saturday Night Special doubleheader, I did get my utterly under-keen 15-year-old – the one I’m trying not to plan my grand off-season vision and workout schedule around – to sit down and watch Duke-Michigan State. He knew nothing of either team, but liked the underdog Spartans, maybe because of some of the pastings our high school team took in tournaments we weren’t quite ready for.

The big names. Which one of these will not make the NBA?

The big names. Kaminsky, Trice, Okafor, Towns. Which one of these will not make NBA millions?

People loved this edition of the Final Four partly because of the high-profile coaches there – Kentucky’s Calipari, Duke’s Krzyzewski (didn’t even check, that’s how well I can spell!), Bo (the Badger) Ryan, and MSU’s Tom Izzo – three future Hall of Famers and one (Coach K) already bronzed. TV also sold the perfect, please-everybody configuration: number one-seeds in profusion meant a high quality of teams and athletes, and one lower seed was there to carry all the hopes for those who like the story of The Little (Multimillion Dollar, BigShoe-Funded) College Team That Could.

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NCAA Hoops Lookback: The Fatal Four

Due to, in no particular order, the following factors –

  • a super-concentrated acidic splash by John Oliver, indicting and ridiculing the entire NCAA basketball enterprise (can’t hyperlink right now, but it’s here: http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/john-oliver-ncaa-rant-players/2015/03/18/id/630823/ ),
  • my own manic attention to the CIS version of March Madness, spent watching the games of the (Ontario University Athletics) Wilson Cup and the following week’s Final 8 in Toronto (and a blizzard of hoops-related words that can be accessed just down there),
  • we don’t have a television hook-up, and apparently one of Howdy’s Current Foundational Principles (HCFP) is the refusal to pay for live-streaming of games on my laptop,
  • I don’t have many basketball friends,
  • increasing miles on the spectator-sport odometer, games-related grumpiness, impatience with commercials, crankiness over announcers’ clichés, and
  • (possibly?) growing good sense –

I didn’t watch any of the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (HCFP No. 2: the “play-in games” earlier in the week to decide the last four Cinderellas invited to the Big Dance of 64 do not count. Round 1 of the tournament starts Thursday, not Tuesday. Lines must be drawn. <cough> Ahem. Right. It’s not climate-change denial or global terrorism, but from tiny seeds does a mighty apocalypse grow.)

(None of which explains why I’m writing about it so late. I plead lethargy, sloth, intermittent apathy and mild existential angst. And books. I was tired of writing there for a bit — well, my own, anyway. Glad that’s all over now!)

Okay, and since truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues, and I do aspire to virtuosity of some kind or another, I clarify: I did invite myself to Bernie and Wendy’s living room for the second Gonzaga game in the opening weekend, in case they failed again to make it to the Sweet 16. The Zags did, though CBS had switched to Oklahoma/Dayton, which had very little interest for me even though Dyshawn Pierre is an Ontario kid I liked reading about from China last March, during the Flyers’ stirring run ascent to the Sweet 16, to national jock consciousness and, lest we forget, to millions of new dollars flowing to a previously obscure Ohio school. (Well, obscure from an athletic point of view, that is. To me. I know nothing of its standing in biomedical research or the teaching of the humanities.  And who would care about THAT?)

Yes, and I waited ‘til the actual weekend of the second weekend — also known as The Elite Eight — jimmied the rear door at Wendy and Bernie’s (twice), and lingered like an especially blue-cheesy smell in their otherwise pleasant back kitchen. Here’s what I saw:

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Bruins and Ravens and Wins: Hey, WHY?

It’s all so blasé, a profoundly bland kind of humdrum yeah, so what? Even for those who actually pay attention, it gets taken for granted, but for the majority of people here in the capital of Canada an incredible sporting success story is little known and cared about less. Folks might have heard that one of those cute university sports teams, the one at Carleton – yeah, and it’s not even the hockey team, I think it’s basketball – well, it wins. A lot. A few national championships there, some will know; they’ll even sometimes play a game at the home of the NHL Senators. (Most recent commercial nomenclature: Canadian Tire Place. What it’s not called, but is: House of Hockey Worship; Puck Pagoda; Temple of Higher Shinny.) The Sens are fairly supportive, doing their good corporate-citizen best, but this remarkable basketball story, even with maxed-out local interest, gets the Place less than half full.

So listen up, Ottawa. Be warned, Canada! And pay attention down there, Excited States of Basketball – the Carleton University Ravens are poised to do something long thought to be undo-able, for any sports team, anywhere.

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Brian Phillips (on the World and the Cup)

Who’s Brian Phillips? His @runofplay Twitter account is devilishly clever and often funny. (This is possible.) He writes some of the best and most thoughtful prose I’ve read on sports. Phillips is in Brazil for the love of football and words — and, I hope, an excellent salary to boot — and a few days ago he captured some of the essential magic of the great soccer conclave:

“Every World Cup does one thing better than any other event that human beings organize. It focuses the attention of the world on one place at one moment. Around a billion people watched at least part of the final in 2010….When a game becomes so ubiquitous, it almost ceases to be entertainment and becomes something else,

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Spurs Win Again. We Don’t Get It.

I expected to be watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals Friday morning — I’m in China, lest ye forget — and instead I wrote this.

SPURS IN FIVE?! WHO CALLED THAT?

Nobody. Cuz we believe “the team with the best player wins”, cuz the NBA has marketed the hell out of individualism. And MJ did, and Shaq probably was, and so was Tim Duncan, once upon a time, but even back then it was always a team deal with the Spurs.

I forecast San Antonio in seven, so I’m still not adjusted. I’m programmed for an epic climax, as games 6 and 7 in 2013 were the best pair of basketball struggles I’ve seen, what, ever? At least since the Magic Lakers and the Celtic Birds in the ’80s. With the Spurs’ early air-conditioning this year, I’m revising history: they actually won last year, too, even though LeBron James held up the trophies and preened and narcissized “I’m not supposed to be here!” (Sorry, kid king. Noticing the clay feet more than is charitable.)

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NBA Playoffs: Just Asking

Both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs have won two games in their respective Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs. WARNING (to my mother-in-law and other unwary wanderers into this Sweaty Sporting Space: this post really is about the National Basketball Association, though it inevitably tries to wring Significance and a few drops of Societal Relevance from the perspiration-soaked towels waving as the NBA season begins to climax. (Eww!)

Names are dropped, but this isn’t TMZ. I’m just asking. So, here’s what I was wondering during the pair of off-days leading up to this weekend’s Games Three. They’re on Chinese sports television at 8:30 a.m. The Heat outpaced Indiana this morning (our Sunday), and the Spurs try to rope the Thunder into three-zip submission first thing Monday morning. I’ll be on the edge of my couch, thanks.

Dad, Blake, Mom.

Dad, Blake, Mom.

My Everything’s Coming Up Sterling Question: Race being such a, well, such a black and white thing in North America, I ask you – since we all have opinions on people we’ve never met – would Blake Griffin of the Clippers be on Donald Sterling’s no-fly list? Would Jason Kidd? Stephen Curry? All are quite confidently and curiously labelled “black”. (Or even  Steven Adams, that New Zealander with

So much younger looking as Nets coach than as Knicks player. But that wasn't the question.

So much younger looking as Nets coach than as Knicks player. But that wasn’t the question.

the massive brow ridges from the Thunder who looks like he might have some Maori blood?) Do you remember the old idea of people of colour who could “pass”, not for easy points in the paint but for being white?
(Does this still happen?)

 

My Hail to the First-Round Vanquished Questions:

Is it too soon to say that the Houston Rockets’ Grand Gamble won’t work?

How does Damien Lillard get that open for a three when Houston’s up 2 in the final moments of Game 6? (Old coach insists on answering his own rhetorical question: It’s about unselfish talking on the court, and defending during the regular season as if it matters to develop good habits. I was a big Kevin McHale fan when he played, but as a coach? Yeah, but could I get those guys to defend? Pretty darned doubtful.)

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Ten for Twelve. Ravens Win! (Well, *I* Felt Something.)

I’ll regret this later in the day, but only with a bleary, weary grin and a bemused shake of the skull. I get a little hoops-deprived here in China, but not in these wee hours. It’s ten to five in the morning, and my adopted hometown team has just done the ridiculous.

To update last week’s Jordan Conn article on Grantland: “If a team wins TEN out of 12 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens.” Well, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (just Google it) did, and fought madly and well, but the dynasty stands as the Ravens rolled on, 79-67. Did it make any noise? Well, just north of 7000 fans in the home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators – yup, for all you Murricans reading, our national college hoops classic drew over 10,000 empty seats with the two local unis in it – made a fine effort. Sometimes the play-by-play guys were synchronized with the three cameras operating, and for a second-tier pro and a one-weekend-a-year ex-coach colour guy, the SportsNet 360 team did a fine job.

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Love and Hate in the Palace of Sport

OR: Don’t Shoot Brian Phillips, He’s Only the Typist

George Orwell first brought it to my conscious attention, this capacity of ours to accept violently opposite things at the same time, using the same set of brain cells. “Doublethink”, he called it. With adolescent loftiness, I had started in my early teens to notice how my reading and my family urged me to be reasonable all week, while Sunday morning church seemed to demand that I put sense in a headlock and believe a dozen dubious things before lunch. (After that, I could return to the eminent reasonableness of NFL double-headers or five hours of road hockey.) By the end of high school, I’d come to 1984, and

Language is power. The pen is mighty.

been punched by Orwell’s description of a totalitarian regime with its Thought Police and, of course, its doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Since at least those high school days, I’ve felt conflicted about my deep and dedicated love of sport. Most of the time, it just meant that I was the “flake” on the team, even when I was its best player, or that I always felt dislocated. As a “grown-up” athlete, I sometimes felt like my face in the team picture was out of focus; I didn’t share my teammates’ affection for beer or pickups (female or automotive), nor their enthusiastic ignorance of books and other flaky ponderables. “Don’t think too much, Howdy, you’ll hurt the ball-club” was at first the wise and kindly advice of an educated vet of the ball diamond, who occasionally caught me trying to understand hitting at the same time that I was doing it. (Yogi knew.) As time passed, though, in the locker room and finally in my own mind, it became a mocking sort of mantra which suggested that sport and introspection were, or maybe ought to be, mutually exclusive.

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Boston Strong. So is Baseball. Radio Works.

I know, I know. It’s Friday. The World Series ended Wednesday night. We should forget about it as quickly as possible and get on to the next entertainment fix, just as we trash the orange and black from the malls and get the reindeer prancing and Santa selling. I beg to differ. (I stomp my feet and holler to differ.) I had an odd and possibly interesting view of the high baseball holy days from China, and here’s what some of it looked like. This is the third in my World Series Series (the first was here). 

 

“They are three outs away from winning the World Series, ” Dan Shulman suavely said into my earphones in Room 501. He’s a microphone pro, one of the best narrators in the world of sports, and though smooth  as always, a younger man’s glee at looming victory was tangible in his voice. (He’s also Canadian, I may have pointed out before, as is Jonah Keri, the author of this excellent recap of Boston’s road to victory. Mine’s a narrower, more idiosyncratic take, while Keri gets inside baseball as well as anybody I’ve read.) I was with Shulman and fellow commentator Orel Hershiser, plus tens of thousands of screaming BoSoxian crazies, and who knows how many eavesdroppers via ESPN Radio, but I couldn’t have been much more alone in my hunger for baseball.

501 is the Chinese teachers’ workroom in the small economics college of a thoroughly average university in northeastern China. There were no tacos, no high fives and no between-innings arguments. (For most of the hour or so I was there, there wasn’t even another human.) I hadn’t been able to find another foreigner with any baseball interest to share the “October Classic” with.

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