Month: November 2003

Thankful

I wrote a Thanksgiving memory piece Monday I haven’t had time to finish. That’s my task for the afternoon. But here’s something to tide you over.
My wife.
Our health and happiness.
My new brothers and sisters and parents.
Our friends and family who helped make this the most amazing year of our lives.
The good fortune to live in a great house.
A job that’s maddening some days, but gives me a good income and the freedom to travel, visit friends, and pursue my writing.
ESPN Full Court.
Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, and Aaron Miles.
Bill Self.
Mark Mangino and Bill Whittemore.
Ed.
Scrubs.
The Fab Five.
Seinfeld reruns.
Will Ferrell.
One more album from Joe Strummer.
Wilco, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead.
Books.
My MP3 player.
Google.
Bubb Rubb and Lil’ Sis.
Caffeine.
Newcastle Brown Ale.
Any Glen, just as long as it’s not a blend.
Really good Mexican food.
Daylong e-mail discussions with some of you (you know who you are).
Epic eating binges when I return to my hometown.
Friends who make me want to return to my hometown more often than I can.
The freedom to write whatever I want on my own website.
Enough friends who read my thoughts to make the effort worthwhile.
Hosting our first Thanksgiving tomorrow.

1982

All week I’ve been thinking of Thanksgivings past. Our epic drives from southeast Missouri to Central Kansas in the late 70’s (If you haven’t made 12 hour drives in ice storms with nothing but AM radio to keep you awake, well, you haven’t lived. The added bonus of hearing Billy Joel’s “My Life” 900 times in 1978.). Leaving Kansas City after my mom got home from work at 10:30 to drive all night in 1982 (and hearing “Maneater” 1000 times). On to high school, when I discovered the joy of eating dinner with my family, then going to two friends’ houses and eating again two more times. College, when you used the break to prepare for finals, invent drinking games, and play football on Friday. Finally, adulthood, when you’d rather rent a movie and get some extra sleep on Thanksgiving Eve rather than drink until you’re silly. Add in the Dallas Cowboys to each age, and you’ve got a mishmash of memories spanning my life. But one Thanksgiving memory sticks out.

I’m guessing it was 1982, when I was in sixth grade, and the weekend before Thanksgiving we had a pretty heavy snowstorm. Within two days, it was warm again and the snow was melting down to the perfect consistency for making snowballs. The day before Thanksgiving, after getting out of school, a large group of fellow middle schoolers congregated at a section of our neighborhood that was well hidden by trees and houses, but allowed for good visibility to the traffic in both directions. We began assembling an arsenal of snowballs and picking off the cars that passed us. To our left was a large hill that went for several blocks, so the older guys could always identify high school kids early enough that we were extra ready to pummel them. What a great day! We were inside 18 hours of Thanksgiving dinner, football, and a four-day weekend. We had snowballs and steady traffic. For an 11 year old, this was about as good as it got. (It should be noted I was equally happy about blasting cars with snowballs when I was 21 and snowed into a house in Lawrence that sat at a busy intersection, but that’s another story.)

At some point, after we had entered a state of ecstasy that can only be achieved in winter when there’s a healthy supply of snow, someone shouted out, “TEENAGERS!!!!!” as a car slowly made it’s way down the hill. By then, our radars were locked in. Our packing skills refined. We were mean, lean, throwing machines. Every boy frantically scooped snow and dropped the lumpy product at his feet. Eyes twitched, arms hung loose yet poised, we all licked our lips in anticipation. Finally, the blue K-car came into view and we unleashed our destructive volley. I can still hear the smack of tightly packed ice against metal and glass. POP POP POP. It seemed like every snowball met its target, more than a few hitting the windshield on the passenger side. Before we could begin celebrating, however, a wicked screech pierced the air. The car jerked to a stop, and the passenger door flew open. Out jumped not a teenager, but a grown man in a suit and tie. Being a coward by nature, I turned and ran before most, so I didn’t hear the shout of, “STOP! POLICE!”

The next few minutes were a haze. All I know is my pre-teen, world class speed was confirmed, as even across empty fields and snow, I was one of the first to come out in the next neighborhood. I’m not sure why I went with the pack that way. I could have easily cut through a grove of woods and circled back to my home. Maybe it was the alleged police officer that was chasing us. Yeah, that’s probably why I stuck to the front of the pack, rather than separate myself and bring unwarranted attention. I know we made a couple abortive attempts to shake our pursuer, by eventually his partner in the K-car appeared and we were cornered. Again, my cowardly instincts took over, and I moved from the front back into the pack. The panting office that had chased us on foot walked up and joined his partner. He kept his hands on his belt, which held his suit coat back so we could see the badge attached to one side of his belt, and his revolver on the other. “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m going to get shot by a cop on Thanksgiving Eve!”

I don’t remember much of the speech we got, although I do remember it was delivered in classic good cop – bad cop style. The passenger was angry, yelling and often turning away from us in frustration, while his partner attempted to diffuse his anger. One thing they said has always stuck with me, though, “They don’t serve turkey in jail!” What?!?! We’re going to jail?!?! I can’t go to jail, I’m only 11. I didn’t really do anything wrong. It’s Thanksgiving. How would my mom know to come and get me? What if I’m stuck there all weekend because of the holiday? I’ll miss the Cowboys game and copying Dungeons & Dragons manuals. This can’t be happening!

Eventually, the cops left us, confident their severe lecture had taken ten hoodlums off the wrong path in life. We shuffled back slowly back to our homes. No one was even interested in a good game of snow football to end the day. We all just wanted to get inside and hope nothing else came between us and the next day’s feast. Until I got to college, I never threw another snowball at a car unless I knew exactly who was driving it. The image of the Raytown police officer, complete with his stereotypical mustache, brazenly showing his holstered gun to us was burned into my head. I think most of the other people I was with that day ended up in prison, but I learned my lesson. I wasn’t about to let a little classic American hijinks get between me and my favorite holiday, or anything else.

May all my loyal readers have a safe and happy holiday. I’ll be posting stuff throughout the weekend, so if you’ve still got access, check in from time to time.

Gluttony

What a weekend. ESPN Full Court got turned on in time for me to watch KU play UT-Chattanooga Friday night. It’s a weird age we live in when you can feel like you’re sitting on the same couch, just 500 miles away and six months in the past thanks to TV. If all goes as planned, be looking for a lengthy discussion of the KU-Michigan State game on the Big 8+4 blog later this week.

Saturday, KU beats Iowa State to become bowl eligible. I listened to most of the second half on Yahoo’s college game cast. Again, technology. I’m, in general, opposed to 6-6 or even 6-5 teams going to bowls. There are far too many meaningless bowls for mediocre teams. Far too many pre-Christmas bowls with 20,000 people in the stands. If a bowl can’t fill 75% of its seats, I say you end the thing. Let’s get back to the days when going to a bowl really meant something. That said, the progress made by Mark Mangino and the rest of the KU coaching staff in 15 months is phenomenal. A year ago, I sat in Ames, Iowa on Labor Day weekend and was embarrassed by how little talent KU had. As a token of thanks for making their win so easy, the Iowa State team gave Tight End coach (and former KU coach) Terry Allen a game ball. Saturday, he slunk out of Memorial Stadium without comment, realizing that maybe it is possible to get enough decent players to Lawrence to become bowl eligible. As an added bonus, there have been fewer arrests since he left town, too. More wins, fewer arrests. That’s good coaching. Sustaining the success is another thing completely, but it was an amazing job getting this team within three plays of being 8-4.

Also Saturday was my first Old Oaken Bucket game, Purdue-Indiana. As we’ve all learned, rivalry games are always interesting. IU somehow stayed with the huge favorite Boilermakers until a late interception robbed them of the chance to take the lead. Purdue fans were happy they escaped with a win, IU fans were happy they didn’t get embarrassed. Hey everyone, we’re all going to get laid!
There was a beautiful shot of a Purdue student after IU grabbed their second consecutive interception in the fourth quarter. She was in all black and gold, sitting between two crimson and cream clad IU students. This poor girl looked like she was going to get sick as her IU friends celebrated. She wasn’t a casual fan. You could tell she had been talking smack for months, convinced IU had no chance. All of a sudden, IU was 35 yards from taking the lead late in the game. I’m sure she was debating whether to cry or just flee. I’ve been there, I know the dilemma. Three minutes later, when Purdue took the ball back, she was ecstatic.
Throughout the game, there were shots of mixed groups of friends. Alternating red, black, white, and yellow in various shades. That, my friends, is the true beauty of the rivalry game. Thanks again to the assholes in Dallas for taking away my rivalry game.

Later in the day, I was showing a visitor where the ESPN Full Court channels started in our cable lineup. What’s this? I can see the ESPN Game Day broadcasts too? Either some huge error, or they just open up the channels for both packages when seasons overlap. I had UConn – Sacred Heart basketball on one channel, and then five football games on other channels: OU-Texas Tech, Wisconsin-Iowa, and three Pac Ten games. Of course, I didn’t discover this until the USC and OU games were already out of hand, but I was in heaven switching between a total of nine football games. In fact, I probably got too excited and fell asleep before I could watch either the North Carolina or Maryland basketball games that night. That’s ok, I have four months of non-stop hoops ahead of me.

And now we’re officially in Countdown to Turkey mode. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s not even close. It’s brief. It’s about good things: eating, football, marquee basketball match-ups, the greatest episode of Cheers ever, and taking time to be reflect on things that are important to you. It lacks the debt, mania, and guilt of Christmas. I’ve noticed if you have to make an emergency run to the grocery store Thanksgiving morning, even though the aisles are crowded, everyone is happy and polite. Try getting the same reaction if you go shopping at 4:45 on Christmas Eve. So I’m working on some Thanksgiving specific items for the rest of the week. For those of you departing early, have a safe and happy week.

It’s Here

Hoops season starts tonight, for me at least. Although the big KU coverage controversy was cleared up yesterday, my cable provider hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, so I’ll be sitting here at my desk, listening to the game on Yahoo. It’s better than no coverage.

I admit I’m part of the problem. I spent 45 minutes watching helicopters hover over the Santa Barbara airport yesterday, waiting for Michael Jackson’s jet to arrive. I felt dirty, yet I couldn’t stop watching. Unfortunately, I had a conference call scheduled when Miguelito was whisked into the county jail in handcuffs. I love how Jermaine Jackson came out and said this was a modern lynching. Really? If these allegations turn out not to be true, Michael will survive just as he did ten years ago the last time this happened. Maybe Jermaine is unfamiliar with what happened when Blacks were lynched in the past, but they generally didn’t have an opportunity to repair their lives afterwards. You see, J, they were dead. I also love the masses of people who are turning out to publicly support Mike. I recall really thinking OJ was innocent for most of the summer of 1994, until more and more evidence came out making it clear he was responsible for the murders in Brentwood. Even in that interim, though, I wasn’t out protesting his innocence. And we’re talking about child molestation and sexual abuse here. If Joe Schmo gets accused of that, we automatically assume the worst until proven otherwise. But Michael, who has given us far too much evidence over time to think this is probably true, has people running out in the street for him. Amazing. Finally, Michael dubbed himself the King of Pop. He hasn’t created anything musically significant in over ten years. If the media insists on calling him that, please add “the self proclaimed” in front of the title. We don’t have kings here. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia!

I’m not sure how I feel about TCU getting waxed last night. I was kind of hoping they won out so they either stole a BCS spot from a big conference (and forced them to really look at the system after the contract runs out, even if it cost KU a bowl game) or that they could get screwed despite being undefeated. Are they deserving of a BCS bid? Not really, but going undefeated in division 1-A football is pretty impressive. Think about what TCU has accomplished, though. It’s a small, private school playing in a bad football conference. Yet in recent years they’ve turned out one of the best players in the NFL and after losing ten games in 1997 have won ten games three straight years. Being in Texas sure helps, but you have to get the players first, keep them eligible second, and finally get them to perform. What they’ve accomplished as a program is extremely impressive.

Speaking of TCU, is it cooler to go to SMU or TCU? I’ve been to SMU, and it seemed pretty swanky. Is TCU on the same level, or is it a step down, for kids whose parents aren’t quite in the top tax bracket and can afford SMU tuition and a BMW lease in Dallas for four years?

An obligatory ER note. I can’t believe they killed off Rocket Romano. He had become a bitter, evil man this year, but the discomfort he added to each scene was one of the few things that kept the show strong this year. His overtly racist and sexist treatment of people added an edge to the show. While I think the resolution of those actions would have become either overly moralized or stereotypical, I don’t know that there’s not a better way than dropping a helicopter on his head to wrap things up. Does anyone know what Noah Wylie is doing this year? Carter had evolved into a complex, extremely interesting character, and now he’s only used in occasional, 30-second shots. I hope he’s making some sweet movie. I said earlier this year that they should just end the show and spin off Carter and Kovac roaming Africa. Saving lives, fighting tyranny, going on adventures. The two episodes that took place in Africa are the best things ER has done since the mass exodus of original stars began five years ago.

Pauley

Pauley Pavilion. Home of more championship banners than any other college arena. Old stomping grounds of Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, and John Wooden. Truly one of the sacred places in all of college basketball. What’s cooler than enjoying an exhibition game there with 5,000 other people?

(OK, OK, I shouldn’t make fun of UCLA fan for not showing up. College sports are different in the big city than they are in the hinterlands of the Midwest. In many ways, they can define an entire state where there’s not much else going on. In California in general and LA in specific, there’s a whole different attitude about college sports. They’re front running fans to begin with. Then the fact that there are a million and one other things to do each night rather than go to a meaningless college game. Like the Lakers playing last Wednesday across town, for example. So it’s not fair to compare a preseason game in Lawrence or Bloomington to one in the heart of LA. Just to prove how different things are, as I was walking in, a couple students who passed me said, in unaccented English, “Is there a basketball game tonight?”)

Last Wednesday was the night that massive storm hit the LA area. Luckily, it never hit the Westwood, so I had no difficulty finding Pauley or making it inside without getting soaked. I took a quick walk around the outside of the building to check out the massive sports complex that sits in the middle of campus. Lit, intramural football fields took up more territory than most Midwest schools’ varsity practice facilities. A tennis center built not just to host UCLA matches, but pro matches as well (10,000 seats, I bet). The whole time I walked around, I kept thinking, “Jackie freaking Robinson went to school here.” It’s very cool that Wilt Chamberlain went to KU. I love surprising people with that fact. Having a Wilt or Michael Jordan or Shaq among your alumni is very cool. But Jackie Robinson trumps everyone.

The whole time I was walking around, a loop kept running over and over on the loudspeakers. The first few bars of the UCLA fight song, followed by a perfect voice-over announcer, “Welcome to historic Pauley Pavilion the home of the UCLA Bruins. Tonight’s contest is between UCLA and the EA Sports West All-Stars.” Every 30 seconds, it would replay. You walk in Pauley about 2/3 of the way up; the bulk of the seats and the court are below you. Whenever I visit a new arena, I take a look at the court, get a feel for the seats, and then look up into the rafters. I’m a fan of minimalism when it comes to banners. It’s regal. It’s clean. It shows you’re comfortable with your success, rather than surprised by it. There is no more minimalist set of banners than UCLA’s. Eleven national championship banners for the men’s basketball team circle the building. One for the women’s basketball team. And a banner each for the collected national championships for the men’s and women’s gymnastic teams. No retired banners. No Final Four banners (UCLA has actually lost a game in the Final Four on occasion). Nary a reference to their many conference championships. At UCLA, you have to win a national championship to get hoisted into the rafters. Very cool.

I grabbed a hot dog and a large Sprite ($7 total. Ticket, $7. Parking $7. Hmmmm…) and found my seat in the upper level. The EA Sports West All-Stars were catering to the locals, and featured three former Bruins on their roster: Matt Barnes (the ultimate Steve Lavin player. How is a guy with this much talent playing on roving All-Star teams a year after he left school?), Ray Young, and Ed O’Bannon. Forget the fact he had one of the greatest college hoopster names of all time (“ED O’BANNON!”), or that he looked absolutely perfect cutting the nets down in 1994, Ed O’Bannon is to modern UCLA fans what Danny Manning is to me. He’s the living link to the last title. And like Manning, his so-so NBA career makes his college exploits even more impressive. It’s almost like the basketball gods decided Ed and Danny should always be remembered for how they ended their college careers rather than anything they did after that. As an added bonus, EA ran out Rico Hines, another former UCLA player, about halfway through the first half. “Tonight’s special guest host…” I was close to Hollywood, after all.

One of the strangest things about Pauley is the empty space around the court. For those of you who have been to Allen Fieldhouse, imagine the area behind the baskets between the court and the bleachers being about 100 feet of bare concrete rather than an extension of the court that is only 20 feet or so wide. I’m not sure why, but the bleachers on each end are placed well back from the court. For only holding 12,000+ people, Pauley feels a lot bigger because of this empty space. It’s bizarre. I’m sure it has something to do with earthquakes, mudslides, or rampaging fires. Then, other than the bleachers that surround the court, everyone gets an upholstered seat with arms all to themselves. No chance of squeezing in an extra few hundred fans for big games by asking people to share their bleacher space with someone else. Comfortable, but I don’t want to be comfortable at a college-sporting event.

I took my seat, with my free scoring sheet in hand, and watched the teams warm up. The UCLA band was there, but they sat quietly as regular music blasted over the speakers. Was I at a college game? A collection of former players (and other former athletes I presume) gathered behind the UCLA bench, giving each other the obligatory modern male hug (grip right hands, back pound with the left hand). I recognized Marques Johnson. I was hoping Jamaal Wilkes would show up so I could thank him for sending his son to KU. Periodically a 60 second highlight package of the history of UCLA basketball would run on the video board. I was disappointed there were no pictures of Jim Harrick (understandable) or Tyus Edney (unforgivable). I was also pleased that like us unsophisticated fashion freaks in the Midwest, UCLA can’t decide on their school colors. Some people had on the traditional powder blue and bright yellow colors. Others had colors closer to those of the old LA Rams. Still others wore shirts that were really Cal colors, which should be a sin if you’re a UCLA fan. It’s comforting to know other schools have issues with agreeing on a shade of their primary color. (And can we all just agree that’s it’s idiotic for schools to go for “tougher” colors when UCLA and North Carolina, with their baby blues, are two of the most successful athletic programs in the country and always at the top in terms of marketing sales.)

The game finally starts, with all 5,000 of us on the edges of our seats. Just as the ball is tossed into the air, someone yells out, “NO MORE LAVIN!!!!” This guy was on the opposite side of the arena and I could hear him clearly. It was quiet enough that I could hear coaches of both teams yelling at their players throughout the game. I imagined myself as a coach who was totally pissed at his team’s play and taking advantage of the acoustics, “If you don’t fucking block out, Matt, I’m pulling your fucking scholarship and you’re walking your sorry ass home.” Another weird thing was the lights over those of us in the upper level were turned off as soon as the ball was tipped. It didn’t really improve my ability to see the action, so I thought that was strange. As for the game, sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. All-star teams are always a bunch of chuckers looking to score 30 on a good team and get a look from an NBA team. College teams, especially those like UCLA that are breaking in new coaches, are generally rusty in their first exhibition game. Balls were kicked, tossed into the seats, and heaved violently against the backboard. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about what was going on on the court. To complicate matters, UCLA was clearly using its C team of cheerleaders, so there wasn’t much aesthetically pleasing off the court either. They were true cheerleaders, though, leading the student section in specific cheers during the game.

There’s something about college aged kids in UCLA gear that creates the ultimate college look. It harkens back to the late 50s, early 60s Joe College age. It’s a fresh and pure look, from an age before cynicism set in. Plus, I always think of Janet Jones in The Flamingo Kid. Solid. My perspective is probably still affected by my strong desire to attend UCLA from the time I was nine until I was 17 or so. In fact, when we moved to California, I got very excited since I could pay in-state tuition. Of course, finding out that the first B I got my freshman year of high school pretty much eliminated me from ever getting accepted put a damper on those dreams. But even into my senior year of high school, I had a UCLA hat and shirt that I wore often (Sadly, I wore them together on occasion. Worse look ever, if it’s not a game day, is wearing both a shirt and hat of your favorite team. One is enough. Only exception is if you’re under the age of 14 or actually in school.). Then I got to college and they moved to #3 on my most hated schools list. But that’s just because of basketball and recruiting.

Two more things. First, there’s something cool about the fact that UCLA has an all-sports deal with Adidas. I’ve long been a strict Nike man. It shows how cool UCLA, as a whole, is that they can sign a deal to wear Adidas and not worry about relying on the Swoosh to get props. Finally, John Wooden. I spent at least ten minutes just staring at him. He sat right behind the UCLA bench, sharing popcorn with some people in his row. At each timeout, people would approach him and shake his hand, offer paper for autographs, or just smile and wave. He’s like 107 years old and seemed alert and eager to talk to people. On a scale of 1-10, this was about a 25 on the chill factor scale. The greatest coach ever, just hanging out, enjoying the game. You don’t see that bastard Dean Smith doing this.

UCLA was ahead 34-24 late in the first half when the EA All-Stars put a run together and took a 37-36 lead into the locker rooms at halftime. I decided to pack it in at that point. It was only 8:00, but my body was telling me it was 11:00. Visalia, CA, free horse manure in Fresneck, a feature on the Fresno morning show about the new line of Bobcats, and Pauley Pavilion all in one day was too much for my system. All in all, I was impressed with Pauley and UCLA. I’d love to spend an afternoon walking around campus (that was my plan the next day but I didn’t have time) and to see a game that mattered there one day. But just being inside an arena full of so much history was enough for me.

D’s Notes

The Pauley Pavilion epic is still a work in progress. As I told my man Lee Perry, I’m trying to get it under 15,000 words so you can actually read it all within one work day.

Outcast’s “Hey Ya” really should have been released last summer. Everything about the song makes me think of being at the pool and hearing it endlessly. Or cruising the city with the windows down on warm summer nights.

What is it about the NBA that makes every team make a run? In every Pacers game I’ve watched this year, they’ve either come back from 10+ down, or had a lead of that much that they’ve blown. In the game I’m watching as I type this (Saturday night), the Pacers have been up 15 early, the Knicks have cut that down to three, and now it’s back up to 15.

As I mentioned before my trip, we saw Elf the night it opened. Definitely a new Christmas classic. Most of the reviews I read talked about how the final third was a bit of a clunker. But perhaps being warned about that made it tolerable for me. A little predictable and pat, perhaps, but I didn’t think it ruined the movie. Especially when you’re talking about a movie for all ages. Will Ferrell is genius for the entire 90 minutes. Hopefully this will be the movie that really sets his career alight. The true sign of a good comedy is not just do the punch lines make you laugh, but do the subtle things make you laugh. There were 3-4 really small pieces, almost background elements that made me laugh as hard as any of the overt jokes.

After suffering through an afternoon of Big Ten football, we got the final moments of regulation and overtime in the Florida State – North Carolina State game Saturday. I’m not sure who the ABC analyst was, but he kept complaining about the college overtime system. He said there’s “nothing good about seven and eight overtime games,” and he worries about the health of the players when games go on. I missed the beginning of his diatribe, but I think he wanted the point each possession began moved farther out than the 25-yard line. I’m not sure how that makes overtimes safer for players. If anything, it means they’ll keep playing without scoring, rather than have 27-27 games turn into 69-62 games. Also, with the TV timeouts and meeting of the captains between each OT period, both teams get up to five minutes to rest if they remain tied. Keeping the ball at the 25 means they are short possessions, in terms of plays, anyway. The system may not work in the NFL, but I think it’s the ideal system for the college game. I say more five-hour games that keep you on the edge of your seat. In fact, let’s scrap the first four quarters and just play overtime.

(The Knicks have just run off 15 straight points, tying the game. I’m telling you, runs….)

The Texas women’s basketball team was on my flight from Dallas to Indy Friday night. They were playing Duke in Lafayette Sunday. I’m sad to report they were all well behaved. I was kind of hoping one of the players sitting back by me, away from the coaches, might get tanked and cause a ruckus or something. I’m generally a little freaked out by tall women to begin with. Take a tall woman, put her in heels, and add the knowledge that she probably benches twice what I can, and I’m positively petrified. I was glad I was sitting close to a point guard who talked about how much she liked eating at KC Masterpiece at the Big 12 tournament in KC two years ago.

(Knicks 70, Pacers 63. The NBA is stupid.)

My brother-in-law who lives in Boston is solid. Sitting on my desk when I returned Friday was a large envelope. I opened it up and found a Boston Celtics calendar, signed by Paul Pierce. Mark had been handing them out somewhere and a friend of his had a few signed by Pierce. Kid isn’t a big sports fan, but he knows what his brother-in-law with the bar likes. I’ll be pouring him a few frosty ones over the holidays.

I’m in the midst of two straight books about Cuba. Purely coincidental. I knocked out Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana, his memoir of growing up in Cuba in the days just before and after the revolution. Today, I started a rather thick biography of Che Guevara, Fidel’s revolutionary partner and hero to insurgents around the world. With that in mind, I’m changing the name game I play with S. Now, rather than offering inner city ethnic names as possible ones for our children (DeShawn, Demetrius, LaDanian) I’m sticking to Latin names. So Ernestito, Carmelita, and Eugenio are going to be mentioned a lot around here in the coming weeks. I’m sure this will again be a game that only one of us enjoys.

The Pacers ended up winning 95-94. Dumb. It was a little cool seeing Reggie Miller get hot in the Garden, including a shot where he was fouled and literally fell into Spike Lee. Brought back warm memories of the two years I actually like Reggie (those being the two years Michael Jordan wasn’t playing in the mid-90s).

Call me Kevin Keitzman, but I smell something fishy in the Chiefs’ loss Sunday. Everyone and their mother called this as an upset. Chad Johnson was shooting off his mouth a week ago. And the Chiefs still can’t win with all that going in their favor? They either threw it to get the undefeated monkey off their backs, or significant numbers of players had money on Cincy. You read it here first!

Fresno

Sadly, I arrived in Fresno extremely tired, so I’ve not had a chance to hunt down either Jerry Tarkanian, eat at a good Armenian restaurant, or see if Al Bohl was hanging out in the driveway of his old home. I may be staying in the world’s least impressive Courtyard by Marriott. Disappointing. Very disappointing. Since I’m a Silver Member of Marriott Rewards, I will be registering my displeasure at the highest level.

My first flight today was from Indy to Dallas. A true gem of a man was sitting directly in front of me. Probably late 50s, solid southern Indiana accent, with an Operation Iraqi Freedom hat perched on his head (That’s what we’ve resorted to, advertising our wars on hats? As I learned later, his daughter had just returned from Iraq, but shouldn’t he celebrate her service by wearing something that specifically honored her unit? Maybe I’m just a pacifist and can never understand.) He was all about explaining all the functions of the aircraft to his wife. When I’m traveling, I achieve a level of Zen by keeping my nose firmly planted in a book. Whether getting me through four and a half hours in a crowded San Juan waiting area surrounded by whiny 22-year-old newlyweds, or helping me tune out the shrieking baby across the isle, books have been the crutch I can’t travel without. Unfortunately, this guy got in my head before I could get my Zen on. I got to listen as he explained what each flap on the wing did to his wife. He went on-and-on about how rainy and dark it was in Indianapolis. He informed his wife that “little machines” push the aircraft away from the jet way; they have no reverse gear. What really blew my mind what when he called out to the flight attendant, in a voice full of panic, “We can open those during the flight, can’t we?” after the overhead storage doors had been shut. So he understands that planes can’t reverse themselves, but he doesn’t think you can open overhead bins in flight? Had he never flown before or even not seen a movie or TV show that takes place on a plane?

He was entertaining, though. At take-off, he yelled, “WHHHHEEEEEE!!!!! GIDDY-UP!!!!! GO, BABY, GO!!!!!! WHEEEEEEEEE!!!!” Did I mention he was in his 50s, not five? Somewhere over southern Missouri, I noticed he had spun all the way around and had apparently been trying to talk to me for a few minutes. Being the seasoned traveler I am, I sighed loudly, pulled the headphones from my ears, and asked, “Pardon me?” He pointed out the window excitedly, looked at me with a face of total glee, and said, “See that circle out there under the wings? That darker section of the clouds? It looks like a rainbow!” I looked, and saw nothing that resembled a rainbow, so I just nodded. The poor guy had clearly been hitting the bottle early this morning. “Did you see it?!?!?!” he asked, eager as a preteen trying to impress his older brother. “Yeah, sure.” I popped my headphones back in and attempted to hide behind my book. At least four times over the course of the flight, he pulled out his camcorder and aimed it out the window. It’s at this point I’ll note that it was completely cloudy the entire 90 minutes from Indiana to Texas. Not interesting clouds, either. Just thick, featureless masses that completely obscured the ground. I can only imagine his poor daughter, happy to have survived her tour in Iraq, being forced to watch the video, “And here are the clouds near…Honey, is this near Fayetteville or Texarkana?”

He had a couple more treats left. When we pulled up to the gate in Dallas, he looked at his wife, and began saying over-and-over, “I want a steak with all the fixins. I want a steak.” His wife didn’t seem to pay him any mind, so apparently like me picking up a book as soon as I sit down, this must be the mantra he repeats whenever he arrives at his destination.

When it was their turn to exit, they stood, and he announced to everyone behind them that they had a lot of stuff, so it would take them a few moments to get moving. I really wasn’t surprised, so I prepared to catalog everything they pulled from the bins. I was a little disappointed when all they pulled was a small suitcase and a large blanket folded into one of those heavy plastic, zip-up carriers. It was one of those hideous blankets that only old people with rural roots give younger people, thinking it’s a beautiful gift that is both functional and decorative. I think it had horses and angels on it, with every earth tone imaginable. I know this because we just received exactly one of those monstrosities last weekend. But that’s another story altogether. He handed the blanket bag to his wife, snatched up the suitcase, and froze. He was still staring into the overhead bin and appeared to be confused. I knew exactly what was about to happen. He called to his wife, and the people they appeared to be traveling with who were at least 15 rows ahead of him on their way off the jet, “Is this yours?” he cried out as he pointed helplessly into the compartment. “No,” his wife responded and kept walking. Their companions said they had all their belongings as well. You see, it was my suitcase he was looking at. He looked at those of us still patiently waiting and asked if it belonged to any of us. “I believe that’s mine,” I said. “Oh. OK.” He was really thrown by this for some reason. “OK, well, I just wanted to ask and make sure. Just being polite.” “Thank you,” I thought to myself, “I had totally forgotten I had lugged a suitcase to the airport and threw it up there two hours ago. I appreciate you looking out for me. I never would have remembered it without your assistance.” Keep in mind, all of this is happening as he’s still just standing in the aisle, blocking about a quarter of the aircraft from deplaning. There’s a strict limit of 13 seconds that you’re allowed before you incur the wrath of your fellow passengers. He had at least tripled that threshold at this point. I mumbled something and looked away.

One final time he blocked my progress. On his way off the plane, he noticed the pilot was packing some federally authorized heat. That elicited many questions that the pilot seemed none-too-eager to answer. I was a little worried the weapon might be used. Fortunately, disaster was averted and I was able to enjoy my 45 minutes in DFW.

Moral of the story: keep your ass out of the aisle on a plane, face forward unless you know the people behind you, and when it’s your turn to get off, grab your shit and run.

My second leg, on which I typed much of this, has been much more to my liking. Knocked another 100 pages out of Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire (brilliant), listened to two hours of good music, have an empty seat next to me, and quiet people all around me.

One of my favorite things about traveling is the excitement of what will be on the radio in my rental car when I turn it on. The friendly folks at Avis seem to enjoy the Latin music, whether I’m in Northern California, Southern California, Oregon, or Arizona. Thus, I was shocked when I turned the key on my beautiful blue Cavalier today and was greeted by…..an Australian evangelist. Well, I didn’t realize he was an evangelist at first. He was talking about relationship issues, and I wondered if Gordon Elliott was making a comeback. But then he launched into some scripture and I was amazed. The Australians are trying to convert us now? If you’re going on a mission, the US ain’t a bad gig.

Three touches of the scan button later, I hear the classic Bay Area ode to the blunt lifestyle, Luniz’s “I Got Five On It” followed by a lengthy, bizarre interview with Shock G, formally of Digital Underground. Brother always was deep, but it also sounds like he’s still got five on it most of the time.

Wednesday, I travel to exciting Visalia, CA. I’m not sure what goes on in Visalia, but I’ve got business there. Unfortunately, I don’t get to explore the city in depth, as I have to navigate the three hours to LA in time for the UCLA-EA Sports All Stars game Wednesday night. I’ve obtained a ticket in venerable Pauley Pavilion. I didn’t bring my camera, but I imagine I can paint a picture via the written word for you. Prepare yourselves.

Bummed

And so it begins: real life in Indianapolis. It was one thing to miss half of the best Royals season in a decade. The KU-MU football game. Or to not move my clocks a week ago. But not having access to a KU basketball game is a whole other thing. KU beat the EA Sports All Stars last night in a game that was not included in the ESPN Full Court package. You think I’m joking when I say it was agreed upon shortly after S. and I got engaged that we would always take whatever measures needed to get KU games in Indiana. I most definitely was not joking. I think I got that on paper before we called anyone with our news. Not that it would have mattered if it had been included; my cable company has yet to determine if they’ll offer Full Court this year. Yahoo’s audio service didn’t carry the radio feed either.

Fortunately, I found someone who was pointing his web cam at his TV so those of us in the outlying regions could watch. Brutal. Even with only ten people plugged in, the bandwidth got sucked up, the audio disappeared, and the video was muddled and choppy. It was tough enough to try to discern Jeff Graves from Moulaye Niang, let alone tell if the ball went through the hoop or attempt to read the score. Thus, and E-Bro is smiling at this, I spent the night on the couch, alternately reading Naked by David Sedaris and watching the Denver Nuggets score only seven points in 12 minutes against the Pacers. Fortunately, it was only an exhibition game, so the most exciting things were seeing the new uniforms and the freshmen. However, I have a list of satellite operators already in case I need to make the jump before November 21, when the real games start. This madness must end!

NFL Midseason

Nothing like an exciting MNF game that keeps you up until 12:30 AM. Come on, Tagliabue, start games at 8:00 Eastern! Seems like a good time to revisit my NFL picks from September.

NFC East – Preseason pick: New York Giants. The Cowboys will not win this division. They make too many mistakes and I don’t trust Quincy Carter. They will, however, be in the playoffs. The Eagles are getting hot, Donovan McNabb is getting healthy, and Philly will win the East.
NFC North – Preseason pick: Minnesota Vikings. Sure, they’ve lost two in a row. Sure, there was Favre magic in the air Sunday night. But when you have Culpepper and Moss and get to beat up on Chicago and Detroit, you still win your division.
NFC South – Preseason pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When I wrote my first draft of this last week, I said the Bucs would still be dangerous in the playoffs. Hell, I don’t know if they even make the playoffs now. Carolina will win this division.
NFC West – Preseason pick: St. Louis Rams. Seattle will not win this division. Take it to Vegas and book it. Marshall Faulk is set to come back soon, and Kurt Warner is always on the bench if Marc Bulger gets into any serious trouble. The Rams are about to heat up. Dale Smith is about to get very happy.

AFC East – Preseason pick Miami Dolphins. New England is 7-2 after their disastrous Week 1 and despite an epidemic of injuries. They have a little of that magic they had two years ago. Miami should catch them, but not if Ricky Williams keeps getting shut down in big games. Pats squeak this one out.
AFC North – Preseason pick: Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bucs of the AFC, a serious Whoops! Kyle Boller seems to be getting more comfortable and Jamal Lewis is the most explosive grind-it-out back in the league. I think the Ravens win it.
AFC South – Preseason pick: Tennessee Titans. The Colts ran out to an early lead, but still have to go to Nashville. There’s something about the Colts defense that makes me think they’ll implode (an inability or unwillingness to tackle, perhaps), no matter how brilliantly Peyton Manning continues to play. Titans are still the pick.
AFC West – Preseason pick: Kansas City Chiefs. I never thought they’d be this good. Start the countdown to 16-0, because no one in the West should beat this team. I think they’ll end up going 14-2. They’ll lose one silly game they shouldn’t, then to Minnesota.

Preseason pick: Tampa over Tennessee in the Super Bowl.
Today’s pick: Tennessee pulls a shocker in a classic AFC Championship game in Arrowhead. It will be cold and wet in KC. Priest Holmes will be brilliant. Trent Green will make some mistakes, Steve McNair will not. Green throws a late interception, and the Titans move on to face the Rams, who charge easily through the NFC playoffs. This time, the Titans get those last three feet and win 28-27.

Moment of the First Half: Dante Hall’s punt return against Denver. There were 27 clips on the play, but it still counts. Late in the game, with everyone expecting you to make something happen, and you break off one of the classic returns in the history of the game. Put this one in a time capsule, as Joe Franklin would say.

Goat of the First Half: Rush Limbaugh. I wrote four paragraphs on why he’s an idiot, and why his apologists (on this issue at least) are dead wrong. Not worth mentioning, it’s time for us to all just move on.

Surprise (good) of the first half: Kansas City and Dallas. The Chiefs were a classic 8-8 pick: some people loved them and saw 12-4, others hated them and saw a 6-10 team. Not even the 12-4 people could have expected this start. Arguably as impressive is Dallas’ fast start. Everyone knew the Chiefs had potential. The Cowboys’ potential was supposed to be in 2005.

Disappointment of the first half: Everyone in the AFC West other than Kansas City. Wasn’t this supposed to be the best division in the game? Oakland has completely fallen apart. Injuries are killing Denver, but New England is getting by with as many injuries. And in San Diego, Marty has resorted to using Doug Flutie. Just a brutal collapse by three teams.

Final thought: Parity continues to be the operative word in the NFL. The Chiefs could go 16-0, and I bet a lot of people wouldn’t be shocked if they lost their first playoff game. Indianapolis may go 14-2, but no one is going to call them a great team. And neither the Vikings nor Rams make you want to open up the history books. Teams have too many holes and are too reliant on a starting roster of 22, making injuries more disruptive than ever. Priest Holmes, Peyton Manning, or Randy Moss going down could completely reshape the playoff picture. I think parity is ultimately a good thing for the league (your team is one good draft, or a couple key free agents away from competing) but growing up in the age of dynasties makes me wish there was at least one dominant team to root for or against.

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