kottke.org posts about Bill Simmons
Grantland's Bill Simmons and the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell had one of their epic email conversations the other day and posted it to Grantland. Topics included the NBA playoffs, sports journalism, LeBron, fame in the internet era, sports philosophers, and football concussions.
Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What's our game plan for the fact that -- thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations -- a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven't we experimented at all? Any "improvements" in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There's Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he's performing a public service. He's one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, "This couldn't be a dumber relationship right now."
In this coming weekend's issue, the NY Times Magazine (appropriately) goes long on Bill Simmons and his new web venture, Grantland (horrible name chosen by ESPN and not Simmons).
At the center of Simmons's columns is not the increasingly unknowable athlete but the experience of the fan. His frame of reference is himself. He might not be able to tell you how a ballplayer felt performing a particular feat, but he can tell you how he felt watching it, what childhood memories it evoked, the scene from the movie "Point Break" it brought to mind, which one of his countless theories -- newcomers to his column can consult a glossary on his home page -- it vindicates.
...is called Grantland and will feature writing from Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Katie Baker, Molly Lambert, and others.
In this week's column, Bill Simmons writes about the Peyton Manning / Tom Brady rivalry and contrasts it (somewhat) with Biggie/Tupac.
One grew up in the South; the other grew up in Northern California. One was picked first overall; the other was picked 199th. One looks like a bouncer; the other looks like a movie star. One has been considered the best at every level since high school; the other had to repeatedly fight to prove he belonged. For years, one was considered "the talented guy who can't come through when it matters;" the other was considered "the overachiever who always comes through when it matters." One embraced his celebrity and enjoyed it, making goofy commercials, parodying himself in sketches and cultivating an image as a relatable Southern guy; the other morphed into an actual celebrity, dating actresses and supermodels, moving to New York and then California, gracing various magazine covers, sponsoring watches and boots, and becoming famous for playing football and for being famous.
If there's an enduring snapshot of each guy, it's their postgame news conferences: Brady impeccably dressed and coiffed, looking like he has to bolt in a second because he's headed for a photo shoot; Manning standing there with that swollen, red helmet blotch on his forehead, looking like he's about to be whisked away to the hospital for X-rays. At first glance, you'd assume Brady was the No. 1 overall pick who had been anointed as "The Next Great Quarterback" since he was 15 and Manning was the one picked 199th who had to fight for everything. Nope.
But, as Simmons curiously fails to mention, the big problem with same-position rivalries in a game like football is that Manning and Brady do not directly compete against each other. Their teams play, but the two are never on the field at the same time. Never. Contrast that with tennis, soccer, hockey, and even (sorta) baseball. And basketball. Especially basketball. Kobe and Wade (to pick just one example) battle one another at both ends of the floor for the entire game.
Last week, Bill Simmons accidentally tweeted about a possible trade that would send American footballer Randy Moss from the Patriots to the Vikings and got the entire sports world whipped up into a frenzy. His explanation of what actually happened provides an interesting glimpse into how sports media sausage is made.
The first thing you need to know: I don't like breaking stories or the pressure that accompanies it. Sweating out those last few minutes before the moment of truth. Hoping you're right even though you're thinking, "I know I'm right. I have to be right. This is right. (Pause.) Am I right?" Wondering deep down, "I hope my source isn't betraying me," then rehashing every interaction you've ever had with that person. My stomach just isn't built for it. If I had Marc Stein's job, I'd be chain-smoking Lucky Strikes like Don Draper.
At the same time, I know a few Guys Who Know Things at this point. Whenever I stumble into relevant information -- it doesn't happen that often -- my first goal is always to assimilate that material into my column (as long as it's not time-sensitive). Sometimes I redirect the information to an ESPN colleague. Sometimes I keep it in my back pocket and wait for more details. It's a delicate balance. I have never totally figured out what to do.
In a letter to the editor in 1988, literary critic Eddie Dow tried to set the record straight:
In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ''The Rich Boy,'' whose narrator begins it with the words ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''
Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ''I am getting to know the rich.'' To this Colum replied, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.'' (A. Scott Berg reports this in ''Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.'') Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum's remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down. The central character in ''The Snows of Kilimanjaro'' remembers ''poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [ the rich ] and how he had started a story once that began, 'The very rich are different from you and me.' And how someone had said to Scott, yes, they have more money.''
World-class athletes, though, really do seem to be different from you and me, and not just because they have better physical skills and (some of them) more money. We act shocked when athletes we think we understand, like LeBron James or Tiger Woods, surprise us with their behavior, or when a great player like Isiah Thomas degenerates into a complete lunatic once he's off the court. (Sorry, Knicks fans.)
The strangeness (and unbelievable abilities) of top athletes is the theme of David Foster Wallace's 1995 essay "The String Theory," about the lower rungs of pro tennis:
Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it's more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We'll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we'll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
But it's better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we'll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way "up close and personal" profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life -- outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what's obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It's farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very small.
This willful ignorance breaks down when 1) an athlete is sufficiently famous and dominant that we expect more from him, 2) an athlete suddenly fails to succeed, 3) an athlete allows those idiosyncrasies out more than is necessary, 4) an athlete's competing in a sport that we don't understand well or follow closely.
For instance, Michael Jordan is a great example of a top athlete who never broke character, whose talents never let us down (that stint with the Wizards being apocryphal, and best ignored), and won at the highest level in a widely followed sport. Yet by all accounts, he was a hypercompetitive, gambling-addicted sociopath. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons offers my favorite take on Jordan:
Chuck Klosterman pointed this out on my podcast once: for whatever reason, we react to every after-the-fact story about Michael Jordan's legendary competitiveness like it's the coolest thing ever. He pistol-whipped Brad Sellers in the shower once? Awesome! He slipped a roofie into Barkley's martini before Game 5 of the '93 Finals? Cunning! But really, Jordan's competitiveness was pathological. He obsessed over winning to the point that it was creepy. He challenged teammates and antagonized them to the point that it became detrimental. Only during his last three Chicago years did he find an acceptable, Russell-like balance as a competitor, teammate, and person.
And still, nearly everyone agrees (and I do too) that this made Jordan the best basketball player, certainly better than Shaq and Wilt and (so far) LeBron, who just had different pathologies.
At Deadspin, Katie Baker takes this in a different direction, looking at ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on BMX and X-games legend Mat Hoffman:
[A] leprechaun-faced, sparkle-eyed freestyling daredevil who did things on sketchily self-constructed ramps in his tweenage backyard ("he's this shady little kid from Oklahoma just blasting," recalls one former pro from that era) that no one else in the sport had even conceived of. Hoffman was so instant a splash that in his first sanctioned competition he took first in the amateur bracket, turned pro on the spot, and then went on to win first place in that class as well. By the next day he had 15 sponsors lined up.
But while the retrospective into Hoffman's game-changing theatrics appears on the surface a delish amuse-bouche for the X Games, it also may cause a few viewers to choke. He nails 900s, yes, but he also breaks over 300 bones. He flies high, but then he lays low. Like, in a coma-type low. As one friend of Hoffman says in the film, describing his jumps off an ever-heightening ramp: "It would go from this beautiful soaring thing to a violent crash so suddenly. We'd be like, 'is he dead?'...
It's easy to see films like these and lament the death-defying choices of men who have families and children, to judge them harshly for their inability to say no, but I wonder sometimes what the alternative is. Some people are simply hard-wired this way. (It's almost too perfect that Hoffman had a dear friendship with Evel Knievel.)
Tony Hawk understands, saying: "That's who we are! We love it too much to hang it up. I hate when people ask me that: 'When are you hanging it up?' Like, if I'm standing on my own two feet? I'm riding a skateboard."
You can't watch the footage of Hoffman as a young kid and not see that he's different, that he can't not do these things. "I just kick my feet," he tells one professional rider who asks how he pulls off an impossible move, sounding like some kind of Will Hunting savant. He talks about lying in bed dreaming about how to build higher ramps. "That's the fabric of who Mat is," says one friend. Who are we to tell him to change?
Add in the fact that Hoffman suffered his most life-threatening injuries trying to perform for TV audiences for ESPN and The Wide Word of Sports, and it's hard to see exactly what the difference is between him and football players or boxers suffering one concussion (or some other major injury) after another, sometimes dying on the field or in the ring, in far too many cases dying too young.
The one difference between Hoffman and the others is that he didn't make fans feel betrayed by a celebrity like LeBron, he wasn't easily ignored like Wallace's low-level tennis pros fighting it out in the qualies just to make a living, and he didn't entertain a gigantic audience for more than a decade like Michael Jordan or Muhammed Ali.
We are all witnesses.
Update: Reader Nick pointed out that the first version of this post implied that Hoffman's career was significantly shorter than Jordan's or Ali's; the contrast I was trying to draw was between the allowances most of us make for athletes in "major" sports versus those in "extreme" competition, especially when the former are just as dangerous and personality-specific as the latter, if not more so.
Bill Simmons recently compiled a list of the MVPs of comedy from 1975 to the present. Here's a portion of the list:
1989: Dana Carvey
1990: Billy Crystal
1991: Jerry Seinfeld
1992: Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Myers (tie)
1993: Mike Myers
1994: Jim Carrey
1995: Chris Farley
1996: Chris Rock
Unlikely Words has the full list and you can go to Simmons' site to read the list with annotations. Such as:
1982-84: Eddie Murphy
The best three-year run anyone has had. Like Bird's three straight MVPs. And by the way, "Beverly Hills Cop" is still the No. 1 comedy of all time if you use adjusted gross numbers.
Bill Simmons has finally accepted the gospel of sabermetrics as scripture and in a recent column, preaches the benefits of all these newfangled statistics to his followers. The list explaining his seven favorite statistics in down-to-earth language is really helpful to the stats newbie.
Measure BABIP to determine whether a pitcher or hitter had good luck or bad luck. In 2009, the major league BABIP average was .299. If a pitcher's BABIP dipped well below that number, he might have had good luck. If it rose well above that number, he likely had terrible luck. The reverse goes for hitters.
(via djacobs, who has an extremely high VORF)
New idea for a biweekly sports magazine: Simmons & Gladwell. Two writers, off the cuff, no polish...the whole magazine is one big long rambling smartypants messy conversation. Or maybe it's an email list where subscribers are CC'd on their emails in real-time. Anyway, in the meantime here's the third conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell (mostly) about sports. Here's Simmons on why the NBA is so good right now:
When you consider the influx of foreigners, the extended shelf lives of quality careers, the medicine/health strides, the positive impact of the rookie salary scale, the successful drug policy and the equally successful one-year waiting period for high schoolers, for the first time since the early '90s, you can make a case that the NBA finally has enough talent to stock every one of its teams. Recently, I watched my Celtics almost lose to Memphis and found myself thinking, "Wait a second ... is Memphis secretly good, or did my wife spike my drink?" And they're 10-14. Really, there are only two hopeless teams right now: Minnesota and New Jersey. Every other team has enough talent to beat any other team on any given night.
And Christ, Gladwell has never seen Boogie Nights? Maybe he's a hack after all.
Bill Simmons is retiring from his Page 2 duties at ESPN Magazine.
I'm retiring from this space in ESPN The Magazine after seven happy years. Like my father and his superintendency, The Magazine was never an ideal match for me -- I hate advance deadlines and word counts -- and yet, I couldn't be happier with how it all turned out. It's just time for me to try some new things, that's all. And you have to know when it's time. I learned that from my father.
But he's staying at ESPN.
In an interview with the New Yorker about basketball and his new book, The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons offers up his take on how players skipping college impoverishes the NBA.
The lack of college experience also means that you probably have less of a chance to have a conversation with a Finals player about English lit or political science. For instance, if you're a reporter, maybe you don't ask for thoughts from modern players on the Gaza Strip or Abdul Nasser, or whether they read Chuck Pahlaniuk's new book. These guys lead sheltered lives that really aren't that interesting. Back in the seventies, you could go out to dinner with three of the Knicks -- let's say, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier -- and actually have a fascinating night. Which three guys would you pick on the Magic or Lakers? I guess Fisher would be interesting, and I always heard Odom was surprisingly thoughtful. I can't come up with a third. So I'd say that the effects are more in the "didn't really have any experiences outside being a basketball player" sense.
I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell's piece on underdogs the other day. It's one of the many subjects that he and Bill Simmons tackle in a three-part email conversation they had recently: part one, part two, part three. Simmons says of LeBron James:
Let's wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he's still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel's amp. He alternated between "9" and "10" in the regular season, and he's been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can't shake the feeling that he has an "11" in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that's it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It's a whole other ball game: You aren't just beating teams, you're destroying their will. You never know when you'll see another 11. I'm just glad we're here. End of tangent.)
I have a hunch that Kobe may not even make it to the finals. They've got to beat the pesky and superstarless Rockets first and those Nuggets are looking good, although the long layoff could affect their momentum. Gladwell shared one of his ideas for changing the NBA draft: let the best teams pick first.
I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team's name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don't think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that's simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.
Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic -- like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad -- you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can't-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.
Simmons and Gladwell did this once before in 2006: part one, part two.
I need to make more time to read Bill Simmons' column each week. His NBA MVP picks are an informative hoot. (Informative Hoot happens to be on the shortlist of possible alternate names for kottke.org.)
In a recent column, ESPN sports writer Bill Simmons shared his list of best sports pieces ever written. Max from The Millions took Simmons' list and found many of the articles were available online for your complementary reading pleasure. Authors include Gay Talese, Roger Angell, George Plimton, and David Foster Wallace.
Conventional wisdom and prevailing opinion among hardcore Boston Red Sox fans is that LA Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez finally sulked his way out of a Boston Red Sox uniform by basically phoning it in and causing trouble for his team for a couple of months earlier in the season, which phoning and trouble resulted in a trade of Ramirez to LA for very little in return. Two rebuttals have surfaced recently that seem more plausible to me. The first is Facts About Manny Ramirez by Joe Sheehan. Sheehan uses some of those pesky facts to illustrate that on the field, Manny played as well or better during the supposed phoning-it-in period than he has in the past.
When he played, Ramirez killed the league. He hit .347/.473/.587 in July. His OBP led the team, and his SLG led all Red Sox with at least 25 AB. The Sox, somewhat famously, went 11-13 in July. Lots of people want you to believe that was because Manny Ramirez is a bad guy. I'll throw out the wildly implausible idea that the Sox went 11-13 because Ortiz played in six games and because veterans Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek has sub-600 OPSs for the month.
Four days before he was traded, Manny Ramirez just about single-handedly saved the Red Sox from getting swept by the Yankees, with doubles in the first and third innings that helped the Sox get out to a 5-0 lead in a game they had to win to stay ahead of the Yankees in the wild-card race.
In Manny Being Manipulated, Bill Simmons attempts to answer the question, Ok, so why did Manny suddenly want to be traded and, more importantly, why did the Red Sox actually oblige? Simmons' answer: Scott Boras, Ramirez's agent and "one of the worst human beings in America who hasn't actually committed a crime". According to Simmons, it all boiled down to mismatched incentives and following the money.
Manny's contract was set to expire after the 2008 season, with Boston holding $20 million options for 2009 and 2010. Boras couldn't earn a commission on the option years because those fees belonged to Manny's previous agents. He could only get paid when he negotiated Manny's next contract. And Scott Boras always gets paid.
Boras could only get paid for representing Ramirez if Manny signed a new contract. Which he will next year because as part of the trade, the Dodgers agreed to waive his 2009 option and allow him to become a free agent. And the Red Sox went along because they decided they'd rather have a good relationship with Scott Boras going forward instead of a weird relationship with Ramirez. As for Manny, he gets paid either way, rarely appreciated the weird pressure/adulation put on him and every other Red Sox player by Boston fans, and, I get the feeling, likes swinging a bat, no matter what team he plays for.
In his latest podcast, Bill Simmons apologizes (sort of) for his stupid article on why tennis is sucky and boring, calling it "maybe the dumbest column I've ever written". But then he goes on to say that what Wimbledon needs is a retractable roof on Centre Court and lights so that matches can proceed without fear of rain or night. Both of which are totally happening next year, unbeknowst to Simmons.
If you're a sports columnist, it helps if you're, you know, interested in sports. Many columnists are only interested in the big three sports -- football, basketball, baseball -- and treat other sports with a not-so-veiled disinterest or even distain. Competition, both against others and with the self, is at the base of all sports and if, as a so-called "sports fan", you can't find something of that to love about tennis or badminton or NASCAR, maybe you need to look elsewhere for work. Simmons needs to bring himself up to speed on tennis; he's missed a lot.
And if you're writing about a sport you don't know much about and argue that it needs to be changed in such a way that makes it more exciting for the short attention span generation, you should also be prepared to advocate for the 35-game NBA season, the 60-game MLB season, moving the pitcher's mound back to 65 feet, eliminating charging in the NBA, and 11-on-10 in NFL games.
A pair of fine sports-related headlines from The Onion: Confused Bill Simmons Picks The Departed To Win Super Bowl and Bears Lead Rex Grossman To Super Bowl. "All season long, the Bears have shown that they can win, even in the presence of Rex Grossman."
Bill Simmons, who writes at ESPN and is one of my favorite sports writers, recently penned a rave review of The Wire (scroll all the way down at the bottom). "Omar might be my favorite HBO villain since Adebici. And that's saying something." He also sings the praises of David Foster Wallace's article on Roger Federer.
Buried in this extensive listing of the most valuable players in the NBA by Bill Simmons, is a little muse about NBA stars playing soccer, which I will reproduce here in its entirety so you don't have to go searching for it:
By the way, I've been watching the World Cup for four weeks trying to decide which NBA players could have been dominant soccer players, eventually coming to three conclusions. First, Allen Iverson would have been the greatest soccer player ever -- better than Pele, better than Ronaldo, better than everyone. I think this is indisputable, actually. Second, it's a shame that someone like Chris Andersen couldn't have been pushed toward soccer, because he would have been absolutely unstoppable soaring above the middle of the pack on corner kicks. And third, can you imagine anyone being a better goalie than Shawn Marion? It would be like having a 6-foot-9 human octopus in the net. How could anyone score on him? He'd have every inch of the goal covered. Just as a sports experiment, couldn't we have someone teach Marion the rudimentary aspects of playing goal, then throw him in a couple of MLS games? Like you would turn the channel if this happened?
Link via David, with whom I was chatting last week about Mr. Iverson's excellent chances, soccer-wise.
Part 2 of the Bill Simmons/Malcolm Gladwell conversation is even better than part 1. They really rip into what Isiah Thomas has done as GM of the Knicks. "The mess [Thomas] is creating right now in New York will be studied by business school students 50 years from now alongside Enron and pets.com."