Dispatches from the Creation Wars

My Favorite Things: Sportswriter

The third entry on my “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things” list is my favorite sportswriter. That honor goes to the legendary Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. The Sports Guy writes for espn.com, as well as for the Jimmy Kimmel show, and he’s the funniest sportswriter this side of Bill Scheft. But whereas Scheft writes great one liners about sports, The Sports Guy writes great columns about sports, about his obsession with sports (especially his beloved Boston teams), and about his life. If you’ve been a longtime reader of his columns, you know all the telltale elements that he uses so skillfully in his storytelling:

The cast of characters: his Dad, who sounds so much like my dad that I think he’s got cameras in my parents’ house sometimes; his friends – Bish, Sully, J-Bug, Joe House and the other quintessential Bah-ston nicknames; his dog, Dooze; and of course the ever-patient Sports Gal.

The pop culture references: woven throughout his columns are certain recurring references to objects of American popular culture that are Dennis Miller-worthy in that they are both obscure and perfectly on point when he throws them in. These include the movie Hoosiers, TV show The White Shadow, and the king of all obscure movie references, Gymkata. As one of the 14 people who has seen this movie, let me describe it for you…

begin pointless but amusing digression…

The movie stars champion gymnast Kurt Thomas as…champion gymnast Jonathan Cabot. Ah, but he’s not just a gymnast, he’s also the son of a former secret government operative. And his government calls on him to infiltrate the tiny, yet savage, country of Parmistan, ruled by The Khan, who periodically holds a brutal challenge called only The Game. And naturally, along the way he has to rescue a girl, and he uncovers the hidden barbarism of The Khan, including his Village of Crazies. If this all sounds a lot like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, well, it is. It’s also the kind of movie that has characters with names like Hao and Thorg.

The galactic horribleness of this movie can be summed up in one scene, where our gymnast hero is being pursued by bad guys through a suitably Eastern European looking village. He’s running, he’s kicking ass, then he’s running some more, with dozens of bad guys in pursuit, when suddenly, and inexplicably, he comes across – no, I’m not making this up – a pommel horse. Yes, a concrete pommel horse in the middle of the city square. Because god knows, ancient towns are littered with monuments to gymnastics equipment. Our intrepid hero begins to do a perfect pommel horse spin thingy, complete with scissors kick that knocks out all the bad guys, who for some reason keep running directly at the pommel horse. This is the point at which the movie really loses its credibility. Not because of the pommel horse or the moronic behavior of the bad guys, but because he ended up getting a 5.4 from the Parmistani judge and he deserved much higher.

end pointless but amusing digression

The recurring themes: The Sports Guy has one theme that he uses quite often, which is the running diary. He’ll take an event, say the NBA draft or Wrestlemania, and keep a running diary of his thoughts as it goes along. The results are hilarious, especially if it involves one of the many fantasy sports leagues he belongs to and the drafts that they hold for players. As an example, his column on last fall’s NBA fantasy draft includes these gems:

4:28: You know how every fantasy draft gets ruined by the cell-phone guy babbling with his partner who didn’t show up? And you’re rooting for him to choke to death on a Cheeto by Round 8? Well, in our league, Anthony is Cheeto Choker and Joe House is Cell Phone Buddy. Somehow, they won last year’s title, although they lost money in the long run (because the winnings were less than Anthony’s phone bill for the draft).

Here’s my point: This year, House showed up in person. On the bright side, we don’t have to endure their annoying cell phone calls. On the flip side, we have to listen to them bitch at one another in person. They’re like an old married couple. They just took Jermaine O’Neal eighth (as a forward). And neither seems happy about it.

“Somebody’s sleeping on the sofa tonight,” I joke. Everyone in the room hates me, and we’re not even out of Round 1 yet…

4:33: Kicking off the second round, the Petes take Gilbert Arenas, launching a barrage of “Is this the fourth round already?” jokes. Those never get old…

5:04: I’m starting to like our team. Pining for Michael Redd, we catch a break when Jason Richardson and GP go in front of us. Suddenly I find myself saying, “You know, if Vince comes through this year, we might be in the running.” Of course, Lenny Wilkens said these same words last year, and he’s mowing his lawn right now…

5:15: Wow, I’m liking our team more and more by the minute. I am now convinced that Vince could average 30 a game. Time to mess with Jon, who has the terrified look of a guy who can’t stop himself from picking Lamar Odom. I run through all the standard lines, including “Jon, Lamar Odom’s on the phone … he says he really wants to be on your team,” and “Jon, it’s Lamar Odom again … he says he hasn’t smoked pot in almost four months, and he just wants another chance.”

Finally, Jon whines, “Don’t do this to me!”

5:15: Jon takes Odom. Huge laughs. Dad pats me on the shoulder. He’s like a proud father. Literally.

5:15: A giggling Lee asks everyone who has ever had Lamar Odom to raise their hands. Six of us oblige. Then he asks how many of us would do it again. None of us raise our hands. Somebody else mentions how Odom is one puff away from his third strike (and a one-year suspension). And somebody else mentions, “Is there an easier place in the country to buy drugs than Miami?”

Needless to say, Jon looks like he’s trying to swallow his own tongue…

5:40: Well, it’s time. Eighth round … we need a forward … we need a token Celtic … and I need a good plot twist for this column. Dad and I look at each other. After two decades of drafting together, we could practically do this telepathically.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I ask him.

Dad suppresses a smile. “It’s the right round for him.”

“We’ll take Vin Baker,” I tell the crowd.

For about 1.2 seconds, it’s one of the most heartwarming stories in the history of fantasy sports. Nobody was a bigger Baker critic than me. I wrote entire columns about the guy. He drove me insane. He was the centerpiece of the worst trade in Boston sports history. When I was debating whether or not to move to Los Angeles last year, the thought of watching Baker at the Fleet Center actually made the “Reasons to Leave” section of my “Pro-Con” list (no joke).

As it turned out, Vin says he was drunk every night. Not just some nights … every night. Now he’s sober. And skinny. His legs have some hop again. His deadly fadeaway has magically reappeared from thin air. He isn’t just a different guy, he’s another guy. The Boston crowd cheers his every move. You can’t possibly not root for the guy. Anyway, he needed to be on our team, for the purposes of closure more than anything. And for 1.2 seconds, it feels really good.

And just as Dad and I are slapping hands …

“Vin and Tonic is off the board!” a delighted George screams.

“Just think,” Dave adds, “when he falls off the wagon, it will be like a Double Whammy for you.”

“Yeah,” House chimes in. “You’ll have your NBA season and your fantasy season ruined at the same time!”

Another of The Sports Guy’s inventions for which our culture owes him greatly is the Unintentional Comedy Scale, a means of rating those moments that crack you up when they aren’t supposed to. In this column, he lists most of the great moments in Unintentional Comedy, going from a low of 65, which includes things like Tim Robbins’ horrible pitching in Bull Durham, to Dave Wannstadt’s mustache (73), every Val Kilmer scene in “Top Gun.” (75), Rudi Huxtable’s fu manchu (76 – and ouch), Ray Lewis’ Super Bowl XXXV pre-game dance (81), David Hasslehoff running in slow motion (82 – and I think it should be higher), All existing video of “The Magic Hour” (83 – and this is WAY too low. That might be the most painfully funny thing in the history of television), the awkward beach hug between Apollo and Rocky in “Rocky 3″ (86), The time Ted Kennedy called McGwire and Sosa, “Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser” (90), Gymkata, of course (94), Sean Connery hollering, “You the man now, dog!” in “Finding Forrester.” (95), Mike Tyson saying, “I guess I’ll fade into Bolivian” after the Lewis fight (96), and of course, the only events, to this point, that score a perfect 100 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale:

100: Every Dikembe Mutombo interview … Ozzy Osbourne performing household tasks … Rickey Henderson’s Hall Of Fame induction speech (when it happens) … David from “Real World New Orleans” singing “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” … Corey Feldman’s performance in “Blown Away” … Corey Haim’s “E! True Hollywood Story” … the wedding video of Liza Minnelli and David Getz … Dontae Jones high-fiving Henry Louis Gates during pregame warmups of a Celtics home game.

Another thing that Simmons does really well is reflect on the role of sports in the lives of young men, as he tells you stories from his own life and how sports has provided a bond between his father and him. In this column, for example, he looks back on his childhood and his good fortune at being able to watch Larry Bird in his prime:

When Larry Bird joined the Celtics in 1979, I was just nine years old, dreaming about playing for the hometown team some day. My Dad and I attended just about every game at the Boston Garden. The place was dead. Bird came in and transformed everything, like Swayze waltzing into the Double Deuce and cleaning house in “Road House.” He wasn’t just great, he changed the way his teammates played. He brought everyone to a higher place. Of the 50 happiest moments of my life, Bird and the Garden were involved in at least a dozen of them…

Ever since I was little, I loved basketball more than just about anything. Randomly, inexplicably, coincidentally, the greatest team basketball player of my lifetime landed on my team, in my formative years, and I had the privilege of watching him, day in and day out, for 13 years. His work ethic and his competitiveness rubbed off on his teammates. He always rose to the occasion when it mattered. His passing was contagious. When you watched him long enough, you started to see the angles he was seeing; instead of reacting to what just happened, you reacted to the play as it was happening. There’s McHale cutting to the basket, I see him, get him the ball, there it is … LAYUP! Bird gave that to us.

So that’s what I grew up watching — basketball played the right way. People looking for the open man. People making the extra pass. People giving their best and rising to the occasion in big moments. Even years later, I can rattle off the classic Bird moments like I’m rattling off moments of my own life. Like the time he sprung for 60 against Atlanta, when the Hawks were high-fiving on the bench. Or the time he dropped 42 on Doctor J in two-and-half quarters, frustrating Doc to the point that they swapped punches at midcourt. Or the famous shootout with Dominique in the ’88 playoffs, when they combined for 34 points in the final quarter. I have a hundred of them.

Maybe this strikes me more because The Sports Guy and I are about the same age, and I grew up watching Magic Johnson. And I don’t mean just on TV. I grew up in Lansing, on Foster Street, a block from Foster Park, where all the older kids would play their pickup basketball games. Those games would include my older brothers and lots of kids from the neighborhood, but they also included three future NBA players – Magic Johnson, Jay Vincent and Sam Vincent. At 8 years old, I got to watch these guys play, sitting at the edge of the court and chasing down the ball for them when it got kicked off the asphalt court. And when he went to Michigan State, I got to watch Magic play at Jenison Fieldhouse, the old barn that the Spartans played at in those days. Some of my best memories of childhood are going there, how the bleachers would bounce up and down with the cheering crowd, how loud it was. The incredible excitement that Magic brought to the game.

I still have the scrapbook that I made after they won the championship in 1979. I was 11 years old at the time. I’m one of the few people who actually remembers the other starters on that team (Greg Kelser, Jay Vincent, Mike Brkovich and Terry Donnelly) and the sixth man (Ron Charles). I remember every moment of that NCAA final, Bird and Magic battling it out, both putting on amazing performances. Even at 11, I could sense that this wasn’t just a basketball game, this was something special.

Other recurring themes for The Sports Guy include rules, as in the rules of sports. When is it acceptable to change your favorite team? And the famous “rules for women watching sports with their boyfriend/husband“, which contains some real gems:

1. No PDA. If you’re allowed to watch with your boyfriend and his buddies, don’t rub his head, don’t kiss his neck, don’t scratch his back, don’t cuddle … don’t do any of that stuff…

2. There isn’t a single acceptable situation for the question “Is this game almost over yet?” Not one…

6. Don’t belittle our gambling or fantasy football. Comments like “You have a bookie?,” or “I can’t believe you guys pick players and pretend you’re the coach,” or, my personal favorite, “You guys need to get a life” are all guaranteed to make us hate you.

7. We’re easily bribable, so bring something … even if it’s a bag of chips. If you cook something, even better (Rice Krispies Treats are always a winner)…

9. Know your stuff. The moment you say something like, “Wait, I thought Drew Bledsoe was on the Patriots,” you might as well pull a bag over your head. If you’re clueless, keep it to rudimentary observations like “That was an unbelievable catch” or “This announcer is annoying.” Never say, “Jon Gruden’s so cute. He looks just like my old high school boyfriend!” Save that for the next “American Idol.”

To make a long post even longer, the bottom line is that The Sports Guy is the best sportswriter working today. I can’t even think of a close second. And it’s just a bonus that he loves poker and is a Rounders fan. Just read 50 ways to love the NBA draft and the following diary of the 2002 NBA draft. If that doesn’t hook you as a permanent Sports Guy fan, you’re either one of those people who considers themselves far too sophisticated to enjoy something so banal and pedestrian as competitive sports, or you’re so constipated that you’ve got the Jon Gruden Face going on.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob Maurus
    April 13, 2004

    Hey Ed, revise your estimate of how many people have watched Gymkata to 15.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    April 14, 2004

    Hey Ed, revise your estimate of how many people have watched Gymkata to 15.

    LOL. So you can confirm that I’ve been fair in my depiction of this movie? It really is that bad, isn’t it?

  3. #3 red
    April 14, 2004

    I absolutely adore the Sports Guy. Of course I’m a Boston fan, so I’m partial – but you are so right-on with his appeal, his writing skills.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    April 14, 2004

    I was telling Lynn last night that it hadn’t occured to me until I was in the middle of writing the post about him that I realized that one of the reasons why I relate to Bill Simmons so well is having had much the same experience on the other side of the Bird/Magic basketball divide. I was brought up watching Magic just as he was brought up watching Bird, and in our formative years those were our heroes. So those experiences, and all the cultural detritus that accompanied them, is a common frame of reference for us. I’m sure you had the same experience growing up in the Northeast, and Lynn did as well since she grew up in Indiana as a huge Bird fan. Add to that the constant poker and Vegas references, the eagle-eye he has for cultural minutiae, and the obvious love he has for his father and his long time buddies, and I’m sold. He’s one of the guys I read and think over and over again, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that”.

  5. #5 red
    April 14, 2004

    He wrote a column when “Miracle” came out (about the 1980 hockey team) and proclaimed: “I don’t need to see it, because I remember just where I was” _ and he goes on to describe this experience of watching that incredible hockey match in the cellar with his father – truly beautiful, on multiple levels.

    And he ended it with: “I can’t resist. I’m going to see the movie tomorrow night.”

    He’s great.

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