Monday, June 26, 2017

Has HBO's Comedy Block Peaked

Yesterday, both Veep and Silicon Valley ended their most recent seasons, their 6th and 4th respectively. Both shows are already solidly within the great comedies of the last 10-20 years, particularly Veep. Both are personally well in my own Top-15 of TV shows, with Veep somewhere in the second half of the Top-10. But both shows ended their seasons on somewhat of an interesting note, resetting themselves after largely their most aimless, softest, least memorable seasons to date. The parallel nature of each this year, splitting the groups into various pieces throughout each season, never going too deep in any one direction, and largely hitting reset in the final episode, all the while slightly underwhelming given their previously great expectations, made me think if both shows are close to running out of steam and if we care too much about plot in comedies in general.

Let's talk about the first point first. Veep built up to the crescendo of Selina being president, a role she assumed late in Season 3 when the President resigned suddenly. It never lost a sense of perspective as Selina went from largely irrelevant VP in Season 1, through candidacy to assuming the top office in the land was commendable. It stayed just as grounded, just as close, and easily just as funny, despite the scope of the issues facing Selina and team getting progressively larger. But when they, at the time I thought smartly, made Selina lose the election (despite spending Season 5 going through interesting machinations to cement this fact) and go into post-presidency, it seemed like an interesting avenue to take. Instead, it led to a hodgepodge of a season with a few interesting sub-plots (Selina's library, Jonah's brief run as renegade rep) mixed in with way too disconnected ones. And now they hit re-set and Season 7, apparently, will be about Selina on the campaign trail again.

Silicon Valley was much of the same. On the whole, the first two seasons built Pied Piper from a small garage-band start-up to a major funded property. Season 3 tore that down to where they lost their primary tech and had to pivot. Season 4 continued this tear down until the Pied Piper team felt ass-backwards into a 9th life and reset the group all together (albeit losing TJ Miller). Now we enter a 5th season basically where the show started, with the gang trying to build Pied Piper into something, with the 'new internet' being basically as obtuse as the original compression algorithm.

Both of these shows were somewhat tired, if for different reasons. For Silicon Valley, it was the feeling that we've seen all this before. The show has always been a bit repetitive with so many episodes being centered around the group nearly losing everything before being saved at the 11th hour, but as we get to the 19th and 20th instance of that particular note, it becomes somewhat stale. Also, to be perfectly honest, the show just wasn't as funny this year. The Gilfoyle vs. Dinesh storylines weren't as sharp. Not having evil genius Gavin Belson and instead fighting-for-his-job Belson was not as fun. There were a few nice highlights, like the continuing rise of Big Head and Laurie's own VC, but on the whole it was just slightly worse.

Same with Veep, which is starting to show some of the pains of when you lose your showrunner and creator. The show was more tired in its insults and character behavior. None of the people on Veep are easy to root for, but it seemed that more of the invictive barbs were more malicious than normal. Then again, here is a show that just finished its 6th season. Few great sitcoms make it this far (admittedly, Veep does just 10 episodes a year), and the few that do that retain their effectiveness are rarely so plot-driven.

The only shows that I think maintained their effectiveness this long into their run as comedies that I've seen come down to two names: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (12 seasons) and Seinfield (9). Neither show really cared about plot, or at least season-long arcs. Sunny has done this at times, and probably has way more continuity and callbacks to cannon than Seinfield did, but still largely episodes were isolated, characters didn't grow. Sunny was always flatteringly compared to Seinfield. There's a reason why these shows work because when there is no real continuity, it is easier to just focus on jokes instead of plot.

Both Veep and Silicon Valley had focused on season long arcs, and if anything, while Veep struggled without one this past season, Silicon Valley got more aimless because of the presence of one. Silicon Valley really doesn't need a plot or ultimate end goal to work towards. If anything, if the Pied Piper team ever achieves big success, it may lose all relatability (hard to be too relatable if the group has to deal with eight-figures of funding and hiring 50-100 employees). Veep may need that structure back.

Definitely two years back, when Veep was in its 4th season and Silicon Valley its 2nd, I found the hour those two held as far superior than the hour that Game of Thrones had before it (in its 5th season). In reality, I was more looking forward to my hour of comedy than hour of Westeros. Last year they were close to equal, with Game of Thrones maybe taking a slight lead towards the end. The shows were split up this year, and with these two in the rear-view mirror, my yearning for Westerosi plot-driven escapades is greater than ever.

Veep and Silicon Valley have etched their places in my pantheon of great TV shows. Veep will be hard pressed to go any higher than where I mentally have it (somewhere around #7-10). Silicon Valley might with a great finish (showrunner Mike Judge has said he's mentally preparing for 6 seasons). But both won't go higher because they are not impervious to the same ills that have cost so many shows previously. If not for the sheer ability and quantity of talent embedded within each shows' cast, it would be more dire. Instead, the entertainment comes with seeing how the brilliant comedic minds can outdo the writing and plot they're provided.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nostalgia Diaries, The 2005 Australian Open Classic - Safin def. Federer



I doubt I will go to a game any further back than this one during this little exercise of reliving the past. This one was well in the past. In tennis terms, this was more than a generation ago, when Rafael Nadal had yet to win a single Frech Open, and Novak Djokovic was making his Grand Slam debut. It was an era when behind Roger Federer, the top three players in the world were Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, three names that combined for five Grand Slams, losing another eight finals. These were, of course, Federer's true contemporaries, a woebegone bunch who saw Federer make way too much hay in that brief period between Sampras retiring and Nadal rising.

That was the stage when Roger Federer and Marat Safin squared off in the 2005 Australian Open Semifinals. Each with their own interesting backstory heading into that match. For Federer, he ascended in 2004, winning three Grand Slams. The sports really hadn't seen anything like him in a long time. He was so peerless, so excellent, so elegant. At the time, a player winning three slams was unheard of, and cast a shadow in the sport. It was truly a question if anyone would really beat him again. Starting that spring, one man started beating him regularly, and over time he (Nadal) and others would become equally dominant that dominance became the norm. In 2005, it wasn't. It was novelty, it was scary.

Marat Safin was the perfect person to dent that Federer sheen. Marat Safin was undoubtedly the most talented non-Federer player in that little era. Safin had a ludicrously good backhand, a great forehand, a powerful serve. His only real failing was his mind, his inability to stay focused, stay engaged (stay healthy). Marat Safin traipsed his way up and down the rankings, winning a major at 20 by pummeling at-the-time #1 Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open Final, but also losing a major final to seriously undergunned Thomas Johansson in the 2002 Australian Open final. If anyone could beat Federer, it was Safin. If there was anyone who could but could not be trusted to do it, that was Safin as well.

Turning back the clock 12 years in tennis is an amazing length of time. Roger Federer has always had an ageless look to him, basically looking the same for the last 7-8 years, but rewind to 2005 and he does look different. Longer, flowing hair. A babier face. Federer was just 23, a baby in the sport. Still, he was at his most graceful as well, he seemed to just effortlessly float over the court. Safin had a powerful speed and mastery to him. He himself looked older than his 25. Safin was the opposite of Federer, an 6'4", taut Udonis of a man that oozed sex appeal (yes, I had - and still have - a serious man crush on Marat). The stage was set, under the night sky in Australia. The court was still green at the time, inviting us all in.

The Australian Open always held a special place in my mind because it was an annual event where the timing was so foreign in the US. The day matches started at 8PM. The night matches at 3AM. The night matches would end as I would get-up for school. It was so fun to stay up late on weekends and watch the day session (a 13-year old me was not getting up/staying up at 3AM). The night sessions in Laver are also such enthralling affairs. Unlike the sprawling nature of Arthur Ashe where the noise and energy escapes into the Queens' night sky, in Laver it is all held in, a rapturous, roaring nature that is unseen anywhere else in tennis. The players themselves feed off the energy, heightening any great match into one of unparalleled joy.

The match itself was fairly straightforward through three sets. Federer was getting pushed by Safin more than any player had pushed him in a fair long while, but Federer stood strong in the important moments. Twice, Safin served to force a tiebreak, and twice he was beaten, with Federer winning the first and third sets 7-5 (Safin won the middle one 6-4). At this point, the match was on its axis. It could become a modern classic, with the man who seemed better than anyone had ever been getting pushed further than he ever had, or the final set would be routine after Safin blew his chances. Luckily for us all, including the always great Dick Enberg and Patrick McEnroe calling the match, it was the former, and it was spectacular.

The fourth set featured 12 straight holds, but so many memorable moments in that set alone. You had Safin hitting ludicrous backhands and passing shots. You had Federer whipping forehands. You had chaotic applause from the crowd. You had Marat Safin cursing in Spanish and hitting a ball out of the stadium in protest. You had Federer even smashing a racket after Safin won a long rally with an on-the-run forehand. You actually saw Federer, for once, for the first time seemingly ever, sweat. He was under pressure. He was being tested. The crowd loved it. The announcers loved it.

Given the time difference, ESPN always seemed to have more fun broadcasting the Australian Open, almost as if they thought no one was watching. They zoomed in on a cricket that entered the stadium (Federer pushed it with his racket off the court - Safin would smash and kill it two games later). They randomly played orchestra music between two points. The whole match had this weird energy that added so much to the affair. It would reach its apex during the 4th set tiebreak.

Federer took a 5-2 lead off the back of two clean winners, and one of the most outrageous, outlandish dropshots I've ever seen. Safin clawed back to 5-4 winning two points on Federer's serve off Federer errors, and then, with Safin back in control, Federer did it again. Another absolutely insane dropshot, carved to perfection. All Patrick McEnroe could do is squeal and laugh in enjoyment. Safin wouldn't back donw, and a point later Federer had match point on his racket. For all Safin accomplished, Federer still had the match on his racket. And then Safin pulled off a miracle, two ridiculous shots, a desperation lob, forcing Federer to try a tweener, a good four years before he would actually pull one off. It hit the top of the net. Safin had another life. The won the next two points, stole the tiebreak - and we were a good 70 minutes from the classic ending.

The 5th set played out so perfectly. It would have been cruel for Safin to put in such effort, hit such incredible shots, get the whole crowd on his side ready for a stunning result, to just wilt away. But then again, it would have been so like Safin, someone who made a career of wilting away against far lesser players. But this time he didn't. This time he took control. This time he got the early break, and led the 5th set 5-2. But that's just when Federer showed just how great he is, and how unbeatable he seemed to be in early 2005.

Safin had six different match points but couldn't close it out. Federer broke back, staved off match points to hold a couple times, and we got to the point where it was 8-7 Safin, with Federer serving. At this point it was nearly 1AM, nearly 10AM in the US. It was already a classic, but it had to end in a great way, and it ended with Safin hitting great shot after great shot to finish it. First a clean 2nd-serve return winner. Then a dominant backhand. Then a shot that jammed Federer on the baseline. Finally, on his 8th match point, Safin took the serve early, forced Federer into the corner where he stumbled - supine on the ground he gave up. Safin approached the net, put it away, and raised his arms in exhaustive, muted celebration. It was finally over. No one really knew what to do.

The only one who didn't really seemed stunned was Federer. He knew Safin, he was Safin's friend. He knew how talented this tall Russian was, how great he was capable of being on his night, and more than any other night in his career, this was Safin's night.

Safin would go on to win the Final, beating Aussie favorite Lleyton Hewitt. The tournament was also notable for being both Rafael Nadal's coming out party in a slam, having his own 5-set classic against Hewitt (losing in the 5th), and being Djokovic's maiden slam appearance - he was thrashed by Safin in the 3rd round. As far as Safin goes, he became a trivia fact. From Wimbledon 2004 through Wimbledon 2009 - a good 21 straight slams - only one man not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic would win a slam. Marat Safin. In fact, it was three years until even Djokovic got his name on that list (the next 11 slams would go Rafa-Fed-Fed-Fed-Rafa-Fed-Fed-Fed-Rafa-Fed-Fed). Marat Safin was the one man not named Nadal who took on a peak, in-form Federer, and actually beat him. The fact it was under a riotous Rod Laver crowd just made it so much the more special.

Monday, June 12, 2017

La Decima



I was 14 years old when Rafael Nadal first won the French Open. I was visiting my Great Aunt in Chicago when it happened. I knew of Nadal, in that I knew of the concept of this long-haired, capri-pant wearing dynamo that took the tennis world by storm leading up to that event. Lest we forget he was already ranked #4 in the world, and the co-favorite heading in with Federer. He beat Federer in the Semifinals. Then beat an overmatched Mariano Puerta to win his first French Open title. At the time, people thought this was the future of clay court tennis. They were wrong. He wasn't the future. He is clay court tennis.

Rafael Nadal now has a perfect 10 French Open titles. Just typing that is wrong. In some ways, this seemed so inevitable when he got #9 three years ago, upping his career total to 14. But since then it also seemed so far away. Nadal lost early at Wimbledon and shut it down for 2014. He made the QFs in 2015 in Australia and Roland Garros, losing in straights each time. The loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2015 French Open Quarterfinals was the changing of the guard, so we thought. It was, for 18 months, but something happened around the time Nadal made a great run to the Semifinals in the Olympics last year. He found his game. And all of that soul searching and stroke searching led him up to these past two weeks.

The best Rafael Nadal ever played was the 2008 French Open, when he won the tournament without a set, capping it off beating Roger Federer 6-1 6-3 6-0 in the Final. Amazingly, nine years later, he had a more dominant run. I would still argue that the '08 vintage of Nadal was more dominant, beating better players with more or less equal domination (he dominated guys that made multiple quarter and semifinal trips with such ease, before beating Djokovic and Federer in three straight), but the 2017 version was incredible in a different way. He was stronger, more offensive, more direct. Nadal in '08 played the best clay court tennis ever. He ran, he defended. He passed Federer so effortlessly in the final from all angles it became almost tough to watch. Nine years later, he is still by far the best clay court player in the world, just doing it in a different way.

Nadal at times seems so robotic in the way he plays. He has his routines he's stuck to with needless obsession for 13 years, from the placement of his water bottle to the shirt and shorts tugging he does prior to each serve. But Nadal the person has become more and more emotional as time went on. Nadal has struggled with injuries off and on since 2009, and these past two years struggled even more openly with confidence. In 2015-16 he blew so many matches the old Nadal would have put away, struggling time and time again to serve out matches. Nadal spoke openly during this time of his struggles with confidence, of his fight to find his game. Always saying how close he was right before another harrowing loss. Somewhere late in 2016 he regained form, and there really was no one who would stop him here.

Nadal's romp through the 2017 French Open was the best kind of inevitable. It was his tournament from the start. With the amount of pre-planned ceremony the French put into the Trophy Celebration, one would think they too thought it was definitely going to be his the second the tournament began. Nadal was so dominant, so effortless. The best match of his to me was his semifinal demolition of Dominic Theim. Here was the guy who played him close twice in Nadal wins earlier in the clay court season and then beat Nadal in Rome. He then beat Djokovic, anhillating the defending champ (who's mysterious decline deserves its own piece), bagelling him in the last set. Nadal matched that domination, bagelling Theim himself.

Rafael Nadal's ten titles did shake the tennis world. Players, rivals even, took to twitter and social media to give Nadal his due - including Federer the man who's respect for Nadal seems to grow day by day (love that he admitted today he wouldn't of touched Nadal had he played the French). It is just such an astounding fact, 13 years in the making. Nadal seemed like a historically great player when he was 17 and beat Federer in 2004. He seemed moreso when he won his first slam as a teenager. Overtime he turned into a contender for GOAT by adapting his game to all surfaces, but his magesterial ability on clay never waned - if anything it improved. 10. Just unbelievable.

The fact we are in 2017, and the best two players on tour this year have been Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is so heartening for a tennis fan who was lost in a Novak-filled world. One year ago, Novak's slow climb to GOAT seemed inevitable. A year later, the old guard have taken control, and don't seem ready to give it back. A healthy Nadal, emboldened with confidence, is still somewhat in his prime, given how 'prime' is a mysterious concept in today's tennis world. Let's remember he is just a year older than Novak and Andy, younger than Wawrinka. Nadal may not be close to done - and yes this makes his loss to Federer in the Australian Open even all the more painful (it would be 17-16 in slams right now, with Nadal having two career slams), it gives some great energy to the upcoming years.

Rafael Nadal may be done winning. He said in his postmatch interview with John McEnroe that you always wonder if this grand slam win would be last. You can toss that up to the normal Nadal humility that has been such a core facet of his public persona. But right after that he told McEnroe a more hidden, but equally important nugget, that he 'is playing well, and when I play well I will have my chances.' Nadal knows where he is right now, having accomplished a career lifetime achievement of 10 Slams at the French, but he also knows there could be so much more to come. Like his favorite soccer team (Real), winning La Decima was just the beginning - La Undecima and La Duodecima could be right around the corner.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Yes, I Think the Cavs Can Win

Now, please notice I didn't say 'Will Win'. That is a very different statement that I am not yet ready to make. The Warriors are the favorites - given they have the home court advantage, that they are incredible on both sides of the ball, and have two MVPs, a likely DPOY and the best fourth option maybe ever. There are legitimate reasons that we need not re-legislate as to why the Warriors are favorites. But for people to ask if the chances are higher the Warriors sweep the Cavs than the Cavs win the series? That is insane.

Let's lay out a few reasons that I'll run through for why I think the Cavs have a decent chance:

1.) Their offense is basically as good as the Warriors
2.) They have shown an ability to play the Warriors close
3.) The Warriors haven't played anyone nearly this good yet
4.) Kerr not being there has to matter at some point

OK, let's tart quickly with Number 4. I think Steve Kerr is a fantastic coach, he's had the best start to his career of any coach ever, taking over a 50-win team and turning them into a juggernaut that may end up with a historic three-year run. That said, what do we tell our selves if the Warriors win the gitle (if not go 16-0) with Kerr not on the bench for most of those games. Now, I understand he's been there in practice and his presence is still felt, but if he's such a great coach, his absence may just matter here. We have ample evidence that Mike Brown is not that good of a coach. Doesn't matter when your team is outscoring their opponent by 16 points per game, but it may just notice if the game gets tight, and rotations matter more.

Now, number three, to me this is a key point. We have to fully separate regular season Cavaliers with postseason. Not just for this year. Forever. For the third year in a row the Cavs plodded along through the regular season, only to turn up the heat in a ridiculous way in teh playoffs - with no playoff run more ridiculous than this one. They have anhillated teams nearly as badly as the Warriors did. Their only loss was due to a 20-point blown lead with LeBron either sick, or drunk, or whatever his mindset was in Game 3. Other than that, let's just remember what they did to the Celtics even before Isiah Thomas got hurt, rolling them to truly historic proportions. You can say the Celtics were never as good as a #1 seed, but for the Cavs to, let's remember, have a 72-31 halftime lead in a Conference Finals game shouldn't just get put aside.

The Cavaliers, remember, were supposed to be the Warriors before the Warriors. When LeBron went back to Cleveland before 2014-15, and they traded for Kevin Love, they were supposed to be the all-time great offense juggernaut. Maybe it just took longer to put together. A healthy, engaged, and sharp-shooting Kevin Love completes the picture these playoffs. This is a team that on firepower alone can hang with Golden State. More than anything, this is by far the best team the Warriors will have played in the playoffs. The only team that comes close is the one that for 28 minutes was drumming the Warriors by 25 in Golden State before Kawhi got hurt. Yes, that was the only period of these playoffs the Warriors played a truly great opponent, and they were being manhandled. The Cavs, in their current level of engagement and focus, are as good as those Spurs, if not better.

Point number 1 is right here with this. The Cavaliers have been better than the Warriors on offense in the playoffs. They have the ability to match the Warriors firepower. Now, the Warriors defense is better (by a lot compared to regular season Cavs, but less so when compared to the playoff version) but the fact the Cavs can drop 120 is not meaningless. They seem incapable of going into a prolonged slump, they can keep the Warriors at arms length. Their shooters are, frankly, shooting a lot better this year, whether it is Kevin Love doing a decent Minnesota Love impression, or Kyle Korver, or even Deron Williams. They are deep (arguably, deeper than Golden State - a huge change from years past) and do the one thing that has been an achilles heel of the Warriors: offensive rebound. If they can steal 15-20% of their misses back their offense can become pretty unstoppable, at least enough so to keep competitive.

Finally, I just think they know how to play the Warriors, how to get them out of their comfort zone. We all remember Draymond's injury, and are so ready to make that excuse, but Draymond was there in Game 6 when the Cavs blew them out, and played Great in Game 7.  What the Cavaliers did so well was make each possession count in attacking the few weaknesses the Warriors had. They consistently ran pick-and-rolls with Curry's man setting the pick to get Curry switched on someone, whether LeBron or Kyrie, that can exploit Curry's mediocre defense. Tristan owned them on the boards, a problem the Warriors still have. We'll hear how, well, the Warriors now have Durant, and that ultimately may put them over the top, but LeBron has always owned Durant in that particular matchup, dating back to their Heat-Thunder days. I also do wonder if the Warriors do find themselves in a close game late, if KD's iso-heavy tendencies may reappear - you know, the thing that had Draymond visibly screaming at him on court earlier this year.

I'm not optimistic in the Cavs actually winning the series, but I am in them keeping the series interesting for a while, taking them to 6-7. And yes, more than I know I'm right,, I hope I am. The NBA needs a good series, or this whole damn seasons was a waste. Let's be real, these NBA playoffs have been garbage for the most part. We may have had a second straight good Western Conference Finals, but Zaza Pachulia decided to end any hope of that. The season was good, but behind good National TV ratings, local ratings fell across the board aside from select teams. The NBA is probably quietly a bit worried about the Cavs and Warriors 24-1 combined run to the Finals. If the Warriors then brush that team aside 4-0 or 4-1, there will be real problems. Fortunately, I earnestly don't believe that will happen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 4: Game 6 of the 2011 World Series - The Cardinals & Rangers




Great baseball games are the closest sporting events ever come to classic plays. There is drama, tension, comedy of (and) errors, everything that is great about a work of staged fiction. There are twists and turns hidden behind the aching 20 seconds between each pitch, played out in front of America's sporting equivalent of a stage tapestry, a beautiful ballpark, with minute by haunting minute rolling by under a crisp autumn night. Never more was this poeticism more true than when the Cardinals, the most outlandishly poetic of teams, and Rangers, a collection of both gallants and goofuses, met in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. The game put the Capital C in Fall Classic, arguably the most memorable non-Game 7 in World Series history (or at least in my lifetime). The game started with the comedy of errors, and ended with the drama of a man crowned an All-Time October Hero while Joe Buck emulated his Dad's famous call. The play that was Game 6 ended with few dry eyes and fewer attached fingernails.

The game itself started somewhat uneventfully through four innings, with the most drama being provided by Lance Berkman's two-run home run. Berkman was imported that year to St. Louis, a town that used to hate him when he played for division rival Houston. But with St. Louis grudges are erased the second the red cap is worn, and Berkman himself was more than ready to oblige for a chance at a ring. The game entered the Bottom of the 6th leading 4-3, when the first of oh so many questionable decisions were made by one of the central figures, the man who would most emulate a clown in this Greek tragedy of a night, Ron Washington.

Despite having a visibly tiring Colby Lewis pitching, Washington waited until he walked the bases loaded before pulling him for Alexi Ogando, a far cry from a great relief pitcher. The rest of the inning played out with two more walks (the first scoring the tying run), a wild pitch and Matt Holliday getting picked off. Somehow this was not even close to the craziest inning in this incredible game.

The Rangers had lost the 2010 World Series, a quick five-game affair to the San Francisco Giants that was not really close at any point. They showed great resolve by having a better season than the year before and going right back into the World Series. They stood one game away from winning it, and after walking and wild-pitching their way to blowing a lead, they led off the Top of the 7th the only way they knew how, with back-to-back home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. They added a third run in the inning for good measure, to take a 7-4 lead with nine outs to go. That should have been enough. It wasn't close.

Ron Washington next called on starter Derek Holland, who quickly went through the 7th, but then gave up a home run to Allen Craig in the 8th to cut it to 7-5. Still, no need to panic. Everything was going according to plan. The Cardinals had the meat of the order in the 9th, but the Rangers could counter with flamethrower Neftali Feliz. The first batter struck out, and Albert Pujols came to the plate. From that moment on, the game would enter all-time crazy territory, something not matched until the late innings of Game 7 of last year's series.

Pujols doubled (his last hit as a Cardinal). Berkman walked. Feliz got Craig with a strikeout, and the Cardinals were down two, down to their last out, with David Freese batting. They got down to their last strike. The last time a team was one-strike away from winning the world series and ended up losing was the Buckner game. This would be nearly as harrowing. Freese got a pitch outside and lofted a well-hit fly ball to right field. Nelson Cruz is not a good fielder, and his circuitous route to the ball was a step too slow. The ball bounced off the base of the wall. Pujols scored easily. Berkman, not the fleetest of foot, got right behind him. The game was tied. New Busch stadium was rocking. The Cardinals 'magic' did it once again.

Again, this game wasn't close to over and at this point it already was a genuine classic. The Cardinals have long been known as the Yankees of the NL, a hateable blue-blood of a team way to full of itself. They still had Tony LaRussa as manager, a hagiographic figure who got his DUI swept under the rug as a leader of men. But at this moment, it wasn't too crazy to believe it. Sure, Cardinals magic didn't help them in the 2004 World Series, wouldn't help them in their 2012 & 2014 NLCS losses, but just like it made the Tigers pitchers field like little leaguers in 2006, it made Nelson Cruz inhibit his worst quality (defense) at the worst time. But still, a half-inning later, the Cardinals were right back where they were before - down 2, because for a moment, it seemed God had different plans.

Josh Hamilton had a bad playoffs in 2011. He was still a good player at this point, but he embodied his craziest, high-swing tendencies in that series. Most of the time it didn't work. In his at-bat in the Top of the 10th, it did. Hamilton took Jason Motte's first delivery and launched it. Hamilton more than maybe any player in recent times, was a true Greek tragic figure. A prospect with more natural talent than anyone ever, who saw his career derailed in a never-ending spiral of drugs and alcohol. He was spared, somehow, given a second chance by the Reds in 2007, and then really by the Rangers in 2008. He, a good 9 years after being drafted, finally showed that promise, that Mickey Mantle-like talent. He was the league's MVP in 2010, leading the AL in BA, OBP and SLG. He was a udonis like figure but also the phoenix rising from the ashes. This was his moment. You felt then the Cardinals were allowed to tie the game just so Hamilton could have this moment.



But no, Cardinals magic and Ron Washington's mismanagement conspired to lose another two-run lead, and the Cardinals tied the game again after being down to their last strike again. The Rangers had never won a World Series, and were on two separate occasions down to their last strike. First it was Freese's double. Next it was Lance Berkman's game tying single.

This all led up to the Bottom of the 11th, in what had become a 9-9 game. Mark Lowe, the Rangers 8th pitcher of the game, took the mound against David Freese, the man who what seemed like a century ago brought the game to extra innings in the first place. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Freese rocked the pitch to the deepest part of the ballpark, but from the instant it left his bat, everyone knew it was deep enough. It landed softly in the grass beyond the centerfield wall. Joe Buck, a man who grew up in the Cardinals program with his dad being their long-time commentator, saved his best for that moment. With no delay, he let out a perfect 'we will see you tomorrow night!' - the same line his dad used 20 years earlier during the last great Game 6, when the Twins and Kirby Puckett forced the World Series to a final game.

It was a perfect, storybook, dramatic coda to a brilliant moment in baseball history. The Cardinals would win a close, if uneventful, Game 7, but if anything that amplified the importance and drama of this game. Game 6 was the series, it was baseball at its finest. None of those events made sense, but put together it was something only baseball could deliver. That it happened on one of the the sports great stages, with tragic and dramatic figures like Josh Hamilton, Ron Washington, Lance Berkman, Tony LaRussa and David Freese, the unexpected hero, just made it a special moment in the great tapestry that is baseball.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Random MLB Musings Two Months In

I've avoided writing about the MLB season partially due to the fact that I don't want to jinx the Best in Record Astros, who, as I write this, are 31-15, seven games up in the division, and cruising despite not getting great starts from either Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa (admittedly, both have been good on the whole, just not great). The Astros are great. But so is so much else that is going on in the current season it is about time to look wider. So let's get to some quick-hit thoughts 30% through the season:

= This season has had more surprise stories than in many recent seasons, at least from my immediate reflection. We have the dueling NL West surprises in Colorado and Arizona, to the mashing Brewers, to the somehow still 25-18 Twins, to even the continued nonsensical Orioles being way over .500. None of this really makes sense. Neither does the Cubs languishing around .500, and not really performing much better either, and the Red Sox doing the same.

= The NL being upended is really surprising, given that the field seemed really locked in before the season. The Nationals are doing what everyone expected and the Dodgers are probably going to run away with the NL West, and the Cubs will probably snap out of it, but the supposed Wild Card contender Giants and Mets have flamed-out, leading way to my two favorite non-Astros stories of 2017, the Rockies and D'Backs

= The D'Backs are doing what Dave Stewart and Tony LaRussa thought they would, just one year too late, after both of those two gentlemen were shoved aside (probably for the best). Greinke was a disaster of a signing last year and has been impeccable (arguably best pitcher in teh NL so far this year). The offense has a healthy AJ Pollock matching a still great Paul Goldschmitt, who's quietly put together an insane handful of years to no real fanfare. The D'Backs may have more staying power than the Rockies since they have more established players. I even love that their weird 'let's get all of the 2010 pitching prospects' together has worked reasonably well, with Robbie Ray, Tijuan Walker and Patrick Corbin. If other 2010 phenom Shelby Miller ever turns things around they could be pretty special

= As for the Rockies, the biggest irony is that they really haven't hit all that well. Charlie Blackmon has been great, but defending batting champ DJ LeMahieu is languishing in mediocrity, and Carlos Gonzalez has done nothing. Luckily for them this is the year their pitching takes a massive step-up. There is legitimate concern it is not sustainable, but the indicators are that the Rockies at the very least have a cogent plan that makes sense and is working: they've collected a bunch of ground-ball heavy young pitchers which is perfect for an environment where any fly ball is a risk. Senzetella (22), Freeland (24) and Marquez (22) are probably not this good, but if even two of them hit, and Jon Gray comes back from injury soon, they may have something long-term, which is a statement that has never been said about the Rockies pitchers, and barely any more often for the team as a whole. Denver is a great sports market, and they deserve a good baseball team that can sustain a run for a while. They have a gorgeous ballpark that deserves more love again.

= Eric Thames has cooled off a bit, but the Brewers are still mashing, and when your name is connected to alcohol, it makes sense that the Brewers are a perfect collection of beer-league sluggers. Whether it's Braun, or Broxton, or Santana, or no names (to me at least) like Travis Shaw, my word can the Brewers mash. Now, yes, their pitching is a disaster, and given the sleeping giant in the division, I can't imagine them staying afloat for long, but man is it fun to see them mash, and Bernie Brewer have to take run after run at that slide.

= The AL has far less surprises, and their surprises aren't as fun. There's a fairly non-descript Twins team that probably won't keep this up, and two AL East teams, one being a perennial over-achiever who's best element (Manny Machado) is actually not doing all that much, and the effing Yankees. The fact that the Yankees are the plucky underdog in the AL is hilarious. Have to credit them though. Brian Cashman went about this 'rebuild' well, capitalized on overvalued relievers to restock the farm, drafted well and rode out a bunch of long-old contracts. That patience paid off masterfully. This team still has the #1 farm system in baseball even after graduating Aaron Judge so he can do his best Mike Trout impression. Hard to imagine that Starlin Castro or Chase Headly (or Matt Holliday, or Aaron Hicks) keep this up, but then again Gary Sanchez has barely played either and the last time we saw him in major action, he was doing a great Aaron Judge impression. The fact that they are shedding payroll, have the league's best farm system, and are already good enough to make a division or wild-card push, it is not a good time to be a Yankee hater.

= Quick shout-out to Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, who continue to be fantastic and all-time good like they always are. Trout is, so far at least, on pace for the best offensive year of his career. He is squarely now in the territory where if you project out his career he ends up somewhere between Mantle and Mays. For Kershaw, he's having a relatively "down" year, with just a 2.31 ERA, just 72 strikeouts in his 71 innings (of course, the 72-8 K-BB ratio is as good as ever). Let's just remember that he has been so good that this year is actually HURTING HIS CAREER NUMBERS. In what has been, so far, his worst season since 2012, he is still basically the best pitcher in the NL. What madness. From a GOAT perspective, LA is the center of the baseball universe.

= He was shelled in his last outing, and that might be the beginning of the end of his renaissance, but man was it fun to see Jason Vargas have a Kershaw-esque start to his season. Actually, that is not accurate. Vargas wasn't anywhere near as good as Kershaw. He struck-out less than a guy an inning. His WHIP was unremarkable. Nothing about his performance was special other than that 1.13 ERA. You know what, those are the types of randomess I love about baseball, especially early in a season. Sometimes, guys with completely unremarkable stuff just put a few good months together for no real reason whatsoever. More than anything, that is the beauty of baseball.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Can Zizou be a good Coach?....

Yes.



Honestly, I could probably just stop this piece there, with that single three-letter word. I probably could have done the same last year when the rookie coach led Real Madrid to an 11th Champions League Title after taking over a team in disarray. But there were doubters out there. They said Madrid got lucky, that they had a cake draw to the Final, that they played ugly, that Zidane didn't know tactics if they smacked him on the face. Those doubters should go away now. Zidane is a good coach. The question turns now to will he be a better coach than he was a player?

Now, that question is somewhat facetious. He will likely not approach his legend as a player during his time on the sides. He may not even want to work long enough to do so. But after winning La Liga in his second year, and one win against Juventus from doing something no manager has ever done (win the Champions League back-to-back years), Zidane's first 18 months will rank right hp there with anyone else in the history of the game. Even if he doesn't lead Madrid to European glory (again, wouldn't be a surprise given no one has repeated yet) Zidane has firmly answered the question of whether he is a good coach. The more interesting question is exploring why he is.

I wrote a piece three years ago, when he was Carlo Ancelotti's right-hand man, on whether Zidane would be a good coach. I brought up a few strengths he had shown, including an actual commitment to being a coach, taking his training classes, working as an assistant coach, not wanting to just be handed a job like fellow all-timer Diego Maradona was. I also brought up a big roadblock, in that there are so few examples of all-time talents like his actually succeeding as coaches. Oddly enough, his largest strength is fueled by the legendary stature he still holds, and while he took all the classes, it is still acceptable to critique his tactics.

Let's start with the negative. I am nowhere near smart enough about soccer tactics to really give any good analysis on Zidane's ability in that regard. I have generally seen a team that is always well structured, that has good balance, that has shifted formations and strengths game-to-game and even half-to-half. The preparedness and energy of the Madridistas in their key Champions League matches showed Zidane to have a keen understanding of game tempo and strategy. Sure, he is not revolutionizing football like Pep Guardiola did. He may not seem as tactically perceptive as Jose Mourinho, but he's also far more conceited to ever admit such facts. And of course, Zidane has and will continue to improve in these areas. But let's to move what makes Zidane already a great manager, his mastery of teh tougher, more subjective part.

Zidane man management started out excellent and has only improved since. He commands that team, he has instituted such emotional change. Other than the peak of the Ancelotti years (where again, Zidane was the key assistant), Madrid has always been emotionally disconnected and shallow. No longer. His ability to connect to his key players, to convince Ronaldo to sit out of a dozen games (imagine any non-Pep Barca manager trying this with Messi!?), to rotate players in and out, to get evreryone to buy into performing. Sure, there were a few examples of players not liking being rotation players, most notably James and Morata, but let's realize in a normal squad rotation they would have gotten even less playing time. Zidane kept them integrated, motivated and they performed.

Zidane had the confidence to go on the road and rotate out 7-8 players from his best 11, going with a full-fledged B team knowing they needed results, and had those reserves playing at a ridiculous level to where people debated if the 'B' team was better than the 'A' one. Zidane's rotation worked, it kept Ronaldo fresh to where he's dominated the Spring instead of the Fall, a welcome change to when in past years his play would notably slip late in the season. Zidane has done what few managers could, manage the egos in that room to make them a cohesive unit.

What he also did was have the right mindset. What may be Zidane's favorite word as manager is 'suffer', in that his teams would have to suffer to get results. Sure, some of this is coach-speak, the futbol equivalent of football's 'Any Given Sunday', but he mentally approached games right. He wasn't about dominating opponents into submission (rarely if ever did Madrid have >70% of possession), but they were clinical. They fought. They performed. Last year, he was a little too defensive in their Champions League run (somewhat understandable given Ronaldo's injury), but this year they opened up more. The fact Madrid has gone 13 months without getting shutout speaks wonders to a changing mentality.

More than anything, Zidane is set up for the future. As he continues to grow as a tactician, he has already protected himself with such a strong position. Not only does he have the resume of a legendary player who is beloved in the capital as a player, he's done the same as a manager. It is arguable he has gained enough political clout at Madrid to win power struggles with Florentino Perez - at the very least, he has to really underperform for Perez not to get tons of blowback for canning him. Zidane has earned this with his performance, and now he really gets to shape his team.

Zidane entered a team stock full of talent. It is fairly accepted that James and Morata are out, and a few others may join them. Madrid's transfer ban will be lifted. Zidane will really get a chance to shape the team, and the rumors are that he will get a significant amount of sway on transfer decisions. He's said to want N'golo Kante, or another defensive midfielder, someone to be the Claude Makalele of his Madrid, to match with Casemiro, give depth to the one area of the team without much. This practical approach is what Madrid should be doing, and what Zidane is laser focused on.

Zidane's playing career was defined by a sad bipolar nature. He was such a beautiful, graceful player, often soft-spoken and courteous, but he had an awful temper that showed itself with a surprising amount of red-cards (including, of course, his final match). Luckily for Madrid, Zidane has seemingly driven out the temper and is only the steely, focused, soft-spoken, humble, graceful man he was on the ball. Zidane's mindset is truly perfect as a coach.

It is hard to say where Madrid goes from here. If they do win the Champions League, Zidane will have accomplished so much in his first 1.5 seasons he may see it as the right time to leave. Though that is doubtful, however long Zidane stays he probably won't match these first 18 months in tterms of results. It even seems somewhat inevitable that he will take the France National Team job at some point, try to do something no one has ever done, with the Champions League and World Cup as both a player and manager. Zidane's future is as bright as his club, and because he's gone about this the right way.

Madrid's future has never seemed brighter, and maybe that is because they found their coach, found their way of playing, found their players. Ronaldo seems reborn in his more #9-heavy role. Isco has been unearthed. The defense needs some bolstering to support the aging of their core guys, but the future is so bright at Madrid, and that starts with their calm, creative, pragmatic, handsome bald man on the sidelines.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 3: 2009 NCAA Sweet 16 - Villanova beats Duke

Most of these random games have some connection to random events in my youth. This game was at the end of my last Model UN (MUN) Conference I would attend in high school. Villanova's blowout win in the Sweet 16 was on the Friday Night of the conference. As a Senior, my role within MUN was different. I wasn't a 'leader' perse, not being an officer in the club, but I was one of the two Seniors to go on the trip, the other being my good buddy who was the club's president. MUN is an institution at my high school, and my year was, in a relative sense, not all that great. Most of my fellow seniors had dropped out of the club overtime (there was a lot of politics and drama - not too surprising for a club that has teenagers pretend to, you know, play politics) and by the end it was basically me and him. If you made a few conferences through Sophomore year, you basically stopped having to try out, and you just made it - specifically when your good friend is the club's president.

My friend and I were the technical leaders of the fun side of the weekend, including running the token game of Mafia (a staple of MUN conferences), and trying halfheartedly to steal a few beers (unsuccessful). Villanova's more dramatic game was the day we returned from the conference, an incredible game that ended with a Scottie Reynolds buzzer-beater to beat conference-rival Pittsburgh. But this game stands out because it was a great time to hate Duke and hate Duke with a bunch of other high schoolers who, for no real reason, hated Duke, during a damn fun MUN conference.

I actually remember very little about the game - as I remember similarly little about the actual MUN Conference. I have to admit I gave a half-assed effort during that Conference, there more for fun and to be a Senior with major Senioritis with an expense-paid (by my parents, mostly) trip to Washington DC with a good friend and lord over the younger kids. There is so little, in reality, separating Seniors from Juniors, from Sophomores, etc., but it was a lot of fun to actually be a Senior, to pretend to have more life experiences, more wisdom, more assertiveness. I remember forcing my way to have the Villanova game on in the TV we all crowded in to play Mafia. I had to put in on mute (compromises) but still forced it on and was giddy as Villanova blew the shit out of Duke.

Why did this game stick with me apart from just happening to be on during what was an underratedly seminal weekend of my high school career was that the buddy who was on the trip with me told me he got rejected by Duke (don't cry too much, he ended up at Brown and is now a promising doctor-to-be). That just added to the drama, as there was some personal connection to the 'Fuck Duke' of it all.

WWP South MUN mafia games were basically just excuses for the older kids (who played 'God') to make up ridiculous stories about each player who 'died', and the rest to basically make fun of each other for hours on end as they debated who killed whom. I took  my role as God/Storyteller very seriously indeed. Not really sure if I suceeded, but it was damn fun to regale this kids with my genius takes, all the while Scottie Reynolds and Alan Cunningham shat on Duke with all their might.

Quickly on the game, which I guess I should talk about a bit. Duke was a #2 seed, with largely the same roster that would win the title the next year. Villanova was a #3 in a year where the Big East ran train on the rest of College Basketball (UNC of course would win the title). Villanova started the game close but pulled away before half before embarassing Duke. It was the fourth straight year of Duke embarassments. During my high school life, they were seeded #1. #6. #2. #2, and lost in the Sweet 16 (to LSU), 1st Round (VCU), 2nd Round (West Virginia) and now Sweet 16 again. Duke's repeated failures were lapped up by pretty much everyone at my high school. This was before any of us were actually in college, of course, but still the hatred for Duke was palpable, and their crushing by Villanova was the perfect cap to 4 years of Duke infamy.

That MUN Conference ended with my buddy giving a quick speech on the bus-ride home (a standard for a Senior on the trip to do). It was a weird end to my MUN career. I had been a fairly good-but-not-great performer. I knew a lot of the club leadership over the years and used that to every advantage I could, but I also was banned for a year (on appeal shortened to 6 months). So was my buddy (who ended up club president anyway).

There is a whole story behind this, where everyone at the Conference during my Freshman year were in one room after hours, and when our club counselor came to check on my room (which we were not in), the loser in the room who was 'asleep' told the counselor we were downstairs (when we were not which he knew). When the counselor came to the room we were all in, the two Seniors told us to hide in the bathroom, exacerbating the problem. The counselor went down, couldn't find us, and eventually lost his shit and drove home (we were in Philly), leaving us the next day with the Assistant Counselor and a guillotine hanging over our heads. Ultimately everyone involved (other than the fucking rat who was 'sleeping' who lied in the first place) got banned for a year, reduced on appeal. That was my entry into the club. Three years later, in March of my senior year, I was one of the elder statesman - Irony is great in a way.

There were a lot of strings connected to that weekend that hold a tenuous connection to my current life. The buddy I was with moved out West after college and while we keep in touch, I haven't seem him too much. But we'll always have that weekend where we got to lord over the underclassmen like the cool seniors that we were most probably not in reality. It was a great weekend, a great capper to my MUN life, one of the few clubs I actually cared about in High School (not enough so to do it in college - probably a mistake in hindsight). The fact that Villanova pounded Duke into submission while I was pounding underclassmen with jokes on how they killed one of their own in Mafia was just a great, joyous coincidence.


Monday, May 15, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 2: The 2012 UEFA Champions League Semifinal - Bayern vs. Real

I have a sleeping problem. It's not insomnia. It's not some ruinous issue that adversely impacts my life. Basically, I find it hard to sleep without something (tv, radio, etc.) on. It probably started back in middle school. I got my parents to get me a walk-man (yup, I'm that old) that had a radio tuner. Each night I would put in WFAN and listen to Steve Somers (10 - 1) and Evan Roberts (1 - 6, if I had a tough time sleeping). That eventually became putting on TV shows, or sports, or podcasts. I would rarely stay awake for more than 30 minutes (or one episode, or one 20/20 update on The FAN). Generally the headphones would fall out of my ears at some point. In the end, I would sleep, but I need some stimulation.

It's not too serious, and if I tried hard, I can probably rid myself of it, but habits that start when you are a kid are really hard to break. My wife one day probably won't like it too much so I'm sure there will be an expiration date on this at some point. So, what exactly does this have to do with sports? Well, there are certain go-to games that I'll put on my computer and go to sleep to. And there might not be any better than the 2012 Champions League Semifinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich - preferably the 1st Leg in Munich.

In the beginning it was mostly football games, but that graduated to all games (my previous nostalgia episode is one of them as well), and almost nothing puts me to sleep, in the best way, as this great tie between two great teams, the beginning of a modern era of Champions League football.

The game pitted Jose Mourinho's best Madrid Team, the one that would win La Liga with an all-time record of 32-4-2, with 100 points, 121 goals scored and 32 goals allowed. They met a Bayern team that surprisingly didn't win the Bundesliga (the last season that would happen), but with Jupp Heynckes in charge, and their collection of superstars entering their primes, they were about to enter into a period of sustained dominance. The collection of talent on that pitch was amazing. Madrid had many of the key pieces that still play today (Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric, Marcelo, Pepe, Ramos) but a few forgotten Merengue stars (Angel Di Maria, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and of course, captain Iker Casillas).

Bayern entered with, again, a host of current Bayern greats (Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm, Manueul Neur, David Alaba, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery) but even more ex-greats (Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jerome Boateng). These two teams both played similar styles. They were both the anti-Barcelona (as Bayern would show, of course, the next year by hammering them 7-0 in the UCL Semifinal). They played direct, they played physical, they played fast. They were perfect counterparts across ultimately 210 minutes and penalty kicks, but it started with a really fun night at the Allianz.

The Champions League is just a perfect competition, and no this is not because I am a Real Madrid fan (it is, after all, Our Competition). The battling of nations, of styles. The two-legged knockout format. The great night-time atmospheres across the cathedrals of European Football. The Allianz is not long on history, but high on atmosphere, with pulsating noise, music and cheers from starting whistle to final. The Bernabeu, if anything, is even better. With its high walls that trap noise, there may be no better setting for a Champions League game. I have great connections to both.

The first leg is the one I will put on more because the drama was just so intense. The second leg was the first sporting event I watched as a legally-able-to-drink adult in a bar. I cut class (that in itself was not a surprise when I was in college) and went to a local LES bar to watch the game among some friends, some drunken European hooligans, and a progressively drunker bartender (he was European as well, he really didn't give a fuck). The second leg was a strange game. Ronaldo got a penalty early, then scored a great goal and within 20 minutes Real was 2-0 up. Bayern got a penalty of their own to level the tie (level on away goals as well), and then it was 90 minutes of slightly cagey play with Bayern taking more and more chances when they got deep enough into the tie that a goal for them was worth close to double a goal for Madrid. Again, for various reasons, the first leg was better.

The away goals rule sometimes ruin ties, but sometimes it makes them as well. Mourinho and Real wanted that away goal in the first leg. Bayern wanted all the goals. The openness and eveness of the game created an incredible spectacle. As with any great UCL games, it began with that unforgettable Champions League anthem. That is the perfect way to enter into any tie, especially with the crowd like it was at the Allianz. It felt different. This was a meeting of two titans and they played like it.

The goals were scored by three of the 'lesser' stars in Ribery, Ozil and Mario Gomez (of all people). The Gomez goal was in the 89th minute. Mourinho fell to his knees. Heynckes celbrated like nothing else. It was a beautiful moment in the Allianz. I keep coming back to the energy in the stadium, and for good reason. My favorite sports memories, especially when you move away from football, all have great crowds, buzzing energy and a feeling of the moment that builds as the game goes on. This was no different.

Over the years, the crowds at the Allianz got more entitled, less invested; this was especially true during the Pep Guardiola years, but even now with Ancelotti, the Allianz isn't the same. At that point, Munich was on the ascendency. They made a spirited run to the 2010 Champions League final but that was more of a Cinderella journey. This was them about to become a dominant force. This was the first of five straight trips for Bayern to the Semifinals (ended this year by, of course, Real Madrid). They were ready, and they sang and sang and sang throughout the incredible, up-and-down 90 minutes in Munich.

The tie ended with a dramatic, if awfully executed, penalty shootout. Madrid missed their first two attempts with great saves by Manuel Neuer. Bayern missed their 3rd and 4th. Then Sergio Ramos, the man who a half-decade later would be known more for his ridiculous clutch goals, skied a penalty ludicrously over the bar. At this point,, Jose Mourinho was kneeling, powerless for what was about to come. This may have been the best team he ever had and they were going to go down. Bastian Schweinsteiger, with German precision, ended it - allowing Bayern to play the Final in their home stadium (they would lose to Chelsea, but that is another story).

It was a great 'moment in time' match. This was the height of Madrid's dominance this decade, but of course they would win the Champions League two other years when they weren't as good domestically. Bayern was just about to become the world's best team, a title they held until the 2013-14 Real Madrid humiliated them in the Champions League Semifinal. But more than anything, for me personally, it was a continuation, and a rebirth, of my love for the tournament. In the preceding years, it was dominated by Barcelona and Manchester United. The shock loss for Barcelona to Chelsea (Torres' EUR 80MM Goal) helped, but this tremendous tie is what turned the tide. For once, one team didn't have 70% of possession. I didn't have to hear how one team deserved it over the other. Instead, it was a throwback to the 2006 FIFA World Cup (also in Germany), with great matchups, great pace of play, and more than anything, even play. And really more than anything, in front of rhapsodic crowds lending a tremendous backdrop to it all.

It is ironic that the game I turn to the most to, in effect, put myself to sleep, would be one that also has an indelible impact on me. But so is my life with my terrible addiction to needing stimulation to put myself to sleep. But why does it put myself to sleep? Maybe it is the eveness of play, the sing-song nature of the crowd, and just the fact that the level of competition, the level of intensity, is a calming reminder of how great the Champions League can be.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 1: Game 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals

Let's take a trip down memory lane, to a place in time that was recent enough to be this decade, but long enough ago to when the Warriors were a mess of a franchise, the world hadn't heard of Kawhi Leonard, Derrick Rose was the reigning MVP, and Dwight Howard probably should have won it. Yes, now all of these diary entries can start with a similar 'back in the day' lineup of events not to have occurred yet. But this really was a different time. LeBron James was the most hated athlete in America. The Mavericks were the perennial chokers who with a band of random aging ex all-stars thrown together like the Expendables fought back against the Heatles for the good of America. It all crested in one of the best NBA finals games ever, a back-and-forth, dagger-filled game of multiple 'Bang's' a signature 'Hand down, Man down!' and the world of basketball coming together behind Dallas as it took on the world.

37-year old Jason Kidd had never won a title. Jason Terry was 33, Peja Stojakovic was 33, Dirk Nowitzki was 32 and Shawn Marion was 32. But in NBA terms, after tons of deep runs they were all, in normal terms, in the great twilight of their effective NBA careers (Nowitzki excepted, of course). That they, with a 28-year old Tyson Chandler, and aging role players in Deshaun Stevenson and JJ Barea, could beat the Heat seemed impossible. They won Game 2 of the finals with an all-time quick-hit comeback, goign on a 20-3 run to end the game after falling down by 15 with six minutes left in the 4th quarter. They won Game 4 by playing a ridiculous level of defense. Actually, the first four games of the series were defined by defense. No one scored 100 points in a game. Hell, no one even scored 30 in any quarter until Game 5. It was 2-2, entering Game 5, back in the days of the 2-3-2 series. Dallas needed that game. Miami wanted it. Dallas won it, in the best way possible.

Until that series, Dallas had never really been an underdog, a place where the crowd had to get behind their raggedy team, but playing the Heatles changed that, and that Dallas crowd was all in, from the beginning with a quick start by Dallas giving them a 15-6 lead. Miami came back, but never pulled away, and the crowd was riotous the whole way through. What defined the game was what the crowd cheered for more than anything, a complete, unmistakable, before-its-time barrage of threes.

Dallas finished the game 13-20 from three. This is in a pre-Warriors, pre-Rockets era when that was fairly unheard of. Each one was better than the rest. There was aging, balding, custodian-like in every way Brian Cardinal, to DeShaun Stevenson mean-mugging a pair, to Jason Kidd, to so many others. Some were just audacious. Jason Terry hit a bank three off balance falling backwards. JJ Barea hit a pair, including one of the highest-arcing threes I've ever seen. If ever there was a three that could compete with the height of Barea's it would be the one that Dirk Nowitzki hit a few minutes later.

The Heat came to play as well. Mario Chalmers, before he became the starting PG for two title teams, high three threes. Mike Miller added a few. This was the year before the Heat really figured out their rotation, when hilariously, Juwon Howard and Mike Bibby were rotation players. So many small moments in the game stay with me the few times I've rewatched, but nothing more than this being an intersection between the game as it would become (jacking threes from all over) to the game of the past that I'm really nostalgic for (Peja, Kidd, Terry, Matrix, Bibby, etc.). The first half was an incredible back-and-forth run of threes and jams and fast breaks, ending with Dallas up 60-57. The pace slowed in teh second, but the intensity remained and the legacy grew.

The Big 3 of course made their mark in such different ways. LeBron only really took the alpha dog role in Miami the next year, and in this series you had to wonder who was the actual alpha. Wade was far better than LeBron in the 2011 Finals, and this game featured that odd dynamic to a tee. Wade injured his hip in teh first half, and twice needed to recede back to the Heat locker room for treatment. He twice came back, fueling Heat runs both time. LeBron was healthy, but mentally impaired. He continued arguably his worst playoff series of his career. James was absent, so often standing behind the arc catching and passing off the ball in one continuous motion. His few drives seemed lazy and uninspired. James learned so much from this series, never taking a playoff series off in his life again. He learned, we all did.

The game hit its apex late in the game, with the Jason Terry three heard around the NBA world. The Mavs were up 105-101 but a few stops and the Heat had a chance. Haslem walled off and denied Nowitzki well, leaving the Jason's Kidd and Terry to pass the ball back and forth. With the shot clock hitting five, Terry pulled him, dribbled a few times and launched. Launched it over James, over the NBA aristocracy that was supposed to make the season a foregone conclusion, and nailed in. Breen gave an All-Time bang. JET, despite saying he wouldn't do it until the series was over, ran down the court, arms extended in his trademark pose. He popped the Jersey. He earned it. The Mavericks as a whole earned it.

The game returned to Jackson pounding James defense in a way only he can ('Hand down... Man DOWN!') and Van Gundy called it the best finals game he had ever seen. Van Gundy isn't one for hyperbole but he was right, this was truly a special game. It was still to date, the last stand for the old non-Big Three / Superteam driven NBA. With a style that would become in vogue but a team far from it, the Mavericks showed what depth, what drive, what passion could do. They would wrap things up in Game 6 in Dallas in a surprisingly easy road win, but this game was the true legacy one. It was a show for a city that embraced basketball for years getting their due, with a handful of players who have Hall of Fame cases collectively getting theirs.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.