Book Review: Bill Simmons' Good Book...Of Basketball

Tuesday

Originally Appeared at Mediaite in November, 2009

Remember when you were in high school and your English teacher made you write a paragraph, then cut it in half, and then cut in half again in an attempt to help tighten your work? Well Bill Simmons stayed up late watching Cheers the night before and skipped class that day. No one likes words more than Simmons, who, as his ESPN colleague Rick Reilly once said, might be the only columnist in history to have his column jump to another page.


But it might be just that, the tangential style that intertwines endless pop culture references with hilarious personal stories and occasionally well-researched topics, that has made him one of the most popular writers in the country today.

In his latest book, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy, you essentially get a 700 page Simmons column, complete with lists of the 96 greatest players of all time, the ten best teams in history and of course, around 1,500 words on how Kobe Bryant compares to Teen Wolf.

After reading the book in its entirety, I’m convinced of one thing: Nobody knows more about the history of basketball than Bill Simmons. At times, it reads as though he’s trying to prove that to you, particularly when he writes about the sport prior to 1975. He was born in ‘69, so in those parts, he relies heavily on the hundreds of books he read to fill in what he didn’t witness firsthand.

From there, it’s vintage Simmons. For a guy who calls the year he stopped writing and smoked way too much weed the best decision he ever made, the man has a remarkable memory. He tells the laugh out loud story of how his developing love for basketball made him wish he was black (haven’t we all?). And he comes off as guy who recognizes how privileged he was to grow up in a time where he and his father could afford season tickets to some of the greatest Boston Celtics teams in history. It’s actually quite endearing.

For those who read him regularly, the book meets all expectations. He even addresses some of his longstanding beefs with certain players or coaches. Early on, he describes how Isiah Thomas, a man he crucified over the years in his column, taught him the secret of basketball. The secret is a theme throughout the book; players and teams who understood the secret were rewarded. Those who couldn’t were guys like Vince Carter, who Simmons is harder on than just about anyone who ever played, with the exception of Kareem Abdul Jabar.

While some sports writers use lists as a lazy way of mailing in a column or giving length to a book, Simmons’ top 96 players list is the central premise and unquestionably, the best part of The Book of Basketball. Spanning 338 pages, from Tom Chambers at 96 to Michael Jordan at 1, he recreates the basketball Hall of Fame the way it should be, devising a pyramid that separates the players by level of greatness.

All of it, of course, is his opinion. But he backs so much up with statistics, knowledge and his passion to persuade everyone to think exactly the way he thinks, that you have to question yourself before you start calling Simmons a homer who let all that pot get to his head. Full disclosure: The minute I received the book, I skipped to see where he listed my favorite player of all time, Allen Iverson. He has him about 30 spots higher than I expected.

From there I was sold.

And chances are, you will be too. The book isn’t without its flaws. It occasionally reads like a 700 page book might and the pop culture references will surely be out-of-date by the time Simmons’ children are old enough to read it. But he also delivers the most entertaining history of an entire sport you’ll ever read. Baseball is a sport too stuffy, too set in its ways, to have a book written like this. Football is too much team, not enough individuals.

Basketball is just right. And Simmons was the perfect author to capture it all.

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Politics: Providence Mayoral Debate Review

Originally Appeared at Rhode Island's Future on 7/15/2010

Give perennial loser Christopher Young credit for one thing: The man provides fireworks superior to anything we saw over Fourth of July weekend. On a night where the candidates for Mayor of Providence delivered civil, prepared remarks with zero follow-up from the moderators, Young’s screaming diatribes made the Providence Mayoral Forum at Regency Plaza well worth the price of admission. (Full disclosure: It was free.)


For the most part, each candidate focused on jobs, city services and education. It’s only July, but it’s already clear that Steven Costantino is your guy if you want the city to be more fiscally responsible; John Lombardi is the pick if you want the Mayor to focus on trash pickup and graffiti cleanup; Angel Taveras will concentrate on education; and Young is the right choice for the conspiracy theory, tinfoil-helmet wearing crowd.

A couple notes:

Make no mistake about it. This was no debate. It was a trial run. The candidates were given mostly-generic questions ahead of time and managed to refine their mostly-generic answers down to the second of the time allotted to them. For that reason alone, I say the winners of the night were each candidate’s communications teams.

The line of the night came from a young, African-American John Lombardi supporter who I overheard while I was leaving the event. He pointed out that every candidate seems to want to one-up each other when it comes to how hard they had it when they were young. He’s right. I call this the Tupac-story (I’m from the gutter and I’m still here). Angel Taveras grew up in a single-parent household. Lombardi was an orphan. Young was an orphan. And once, Steven Costantino had to eat Ragu for dinner.

From the look of things, there weren’t many undecided voters in the room. I happen to be one of them. Most people were wearing stickers in support of one (or more) of the candidates and so it was difficult to get a feel for how people thought the forum actually went. Even Young had a fan or two. On to grading the realistic candidates…

Steven Costantino
Overall Grade: B+

Costantino comes off as a little bit more polished than the others with his business-first message and I think it resonates with voters. He said the city is facing a $50 million deficit and he’s the best candidate because he has proved that he is willing to make the tough decisions. He said the city will need to look into cutting department budgets across the board and that he will develop a rainy day fund. He was also the only candidate to mention regionalization: “Rhode Island is a 30 X 40 state that acts like it is Texas. It’s about time we look into consolidating services with other cities.”

He said that one of the city’s major challenges is attracting new businesses. “There isn’t a business out there that wants to invest with a city that can’t control it finances. “ He also pointed out that vacant spaces aren’t ready for new businesses to move in. He said we need to make those vacancies into smart spaces so new businesses actually want to fill the void.

On education, he said Superintendent Tom Brady is doing a great job, but the city is dealing with an infrastructure based on an enrollment that was much higher years ago. He emphasized again that he was willing to make the difficult choices and that it might mean closing some schools. He strongly defended the education funding formula because it was predictable and ensures that “every child in Providence will have a chance, at least the start.”

John Lombardi
Overall Grade: C

John Lombardi sounds tired. This wasn’t the first time I noticed this with him. It’s only July and it appears like he’s already exhausted from the campaign. At two different points, he was caught in a daze when it was his turn to answer a question. It’s too bad because he seems like the most likeable of the three serious candidates, but if he already appears down and out, how will he look in September?

He continued to harp on the delivery of city services and said the city has actually become a problem for businesses. He said businesses are closing because they can’t use their sidewalk or have delivery trucks park in front because they will be ticketed. He also complained about the graffiti problem and people defecating in the streets and pledged that the laws already in place will be enforced if he is elected Mayor.

When asked about the importance of downcity, he said “So goes downtown, so goes Providence, so goes the state of Rhode Island.” He said the city needs to figure out what to do with the Arcade and that the problem with the nightclubs is that the city needs to do a better job handling the traffic problems created when they close.

On education, Lombardi said “we need to hold teachers accountable, but we really need to hold parents accountable.” He said Providence can’t be one size fits all because of its diversity, but as one person pointed out to me, he makes it sound like families are to blame for failing children and even if that were true, it doesn’t actually help anyone. It’s just as bad as Bill Lynch accusing Providence children of being lost during the Congressional debate.

Angel Taveras
Overall Grade: B

Angel Taveras gets better every time I listen to him. He came off as awkward and unprepared early on, but has worked his way to sounding more confident and now delivers a clear, concise vision for the city. I have two pet peeves. 1) The Head Start to Harvard line now generates more eye rolls than smiles. 2) He has to stop telling people that he sees a bunch of little Angels in our children. Old, white Italian families do not want to hear that.

Taveras is best when he’s talking about education. It’s clearly the issue he cares most about and not surprisingly, he’s the only one with an actual plan on how to fix it. He wants to implement a Children’s Zone similar to the one Geoffrey Canada created in Harlem and “no one is going to tell me Providence can’t do it.” He believes in a wrap-around model for school services and said it starts with early childhood education and that we need to look into alternate pathways for students.

When it comes to jobs, he pointed out that while the city’s unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent, some neighborhoods are suffering from 25 percent unemployment. Similar to what Anthony Gemma said on Tuesday night, Taveras feels workforce development is a key issue. He said that while others are focusing on new businesses, he feels Providence needs to do a better a job retaining the current ones and helping them create more jobs.

Taveras mentioned that recovering from the current fiscal situation will take a “shared sacrifice” and that the city can’t just tax its way out. He promised to sit down with every union, the colleges and universities and every department to see what can be done about cutting the budget deficit.

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Life: Why I Coach

Originally Appeared at Dan's Take

Anybody who thinks the Chicago Cubs are the most loveable losers in the world never met my little leaguers. Then again, no one has ever witnessed anyone, anywhere, lose quite like us. We were the Bad News Bears without a happy ending. We made the Washington Generals look first-class. I felt bad watching the runs pile up on my helpless little guys, but the other teams felt worse – you know things aren’t going well when the other coaches are rooting for you.


Winning just wasn’t our thing. Not that any of my little guys knew – once, after an especially bad whooping, one of my nine year olds tugged on my t-shirt and asked if we had won. Won? I gave him a perplexed look, “buddy, we didn’t even make it out of the batter’s box today.”

Such was life for my team during our 0-16 campaign. We struck out, we dodged groundballs, and for a bunch of fourth graders, we had an uncanny ability to remain clean (dirt also wasn’t our thing). But the truth is, I’ll probably remember the losing only slightly more than my team, and that’s only because I actually kept score for every game. It’s everything else, the hilarious stories and the head-scratching ones, the heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking tales that made this season memorable for me.

Teaching baseball to children is a lot like teaching someone to speak English. Every time they think they’re getting the hang of it, another crazy rule pops up and throws everything off. The “infield fly” rule is just a preposterous as “I” before “E” except after “C.” And why, as my first basemen once asked, can’t you just throw the ball at the runner to get him out? Monkey ball works in kickball.

The key is learning all the positions, but that also means knowing right from left, which can be tricky. Sometimes it can also be hard to pronounce the names of each spot on the field. For example, one kid spent the entire year asking to go to the mountain and I would always say no. I thought he was talking about the big pile of dirt behind out dugout. Turns out he meant the pitcher’s mound, and he took the hill in our final game. Jose hit four batters in a row.

My actual pitcher (we only had one) was a 3’2 seven year old who played right field and batted dead last on opening day and was the starting pitcher and leading off by game three. He was so tiny that our catcher (his brother) would often knock him over when throwing the ball back to him. But Joey knew that pitching was all about intimidation, so he’d wear eye-black to look older and make his “mean face” to strike fear in the hitters. That’s heart.

Of course, every team has an overachiever. Ours was our shortstop. Chris knew how to catch and could throw all the way across the diamond. He liked to dive and slide and even though he had an awful habit of throwing his bat after swinging, he made contact enough to be considered our best hitter. In one already out of reach game, a ball was hit to shallow left field and he made the greatest catch any of my kids had ever seen, so they did what the pros do: They jumped on top of him and celebrated as though it were the game-winning catch. One problem: It was only the second out of the inning and a runner tagged up and scored.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t laugh or smile at everything that happened this season. Sometimes reality hits hard. They old motto is “kids say the darndest things,” but in actuality, they’re brutally honest. Mom drinks too much. Dad’s never around and he doesn’t pay child support. Or we’re going to be homeless. Real life problems that winning in baseball won’t solve. My friends often tease me by comparing me to Keanu Reeves in “Hardball,” but the truth is, real life tends to be a lot less entertaining and a lot more eye-opening.

It’s the tear-jerking stories that make me want to come back and should make you want to get involved. Sometimes we don't realize that kids these days are lonelier than ever. Not every child has a reliable parent to turn to or someone willing to pay attention to them. Too many grow up with John Madden as their male role model and Grand Theft Auto has taught them far more about stolen cars than they will ever know about stolen bases.

It's really sad, especially when you hear from people who have already given up on a generation. Children need coaches and role models in their lives now more than ever. It's so easy too. Spend a couple hours a week with a youth. Mentor them. Coach them. Teach them. Do something.

It's not hard to have an impact on a child's life.

So make it happen.

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Education: Waiting For Superman Review

Monday

Originally Appeared at Rhode Island's Future on 10/3/2010

Last Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to view a screening of Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” hosted by Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. What I learned was this: Watching a documentary about education reform with a bunch of Ed School students is a lot like watching a Sox game at the Cask’n Flagon. Everybody thinks they’re an expert, which means a good discussion can quickly turn into a heated argument.


But that’s not what Guggenheim’s film is meant to do. Its target audience isn’t people who receive education-related Google alerts. Its objective, contrary to what some may think, isn’t to inspire hatred for teachers, unions, lunch ladies, recess or that damn recorder so few of us ever learn to play. “Waiting for Superman” is simply supposed to start a broad conversation amongst the general public about a topic we should all be paying more attention to. In that respect, Guggenheim passes with flying colors.

The film has two distinct tracks – one focusing on a system filled with thousands of “dropout factories” across the country and the other following the heart-wrenching story of five children applying for admission into a handful of high-performing charter schools.

As we learn about a system that has more than doubled its spending per student over the past 40 years while falling far behind in performance compared with other developed nations, we’re introduced to two central characters: One is real-life superhero Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who proclaims that while he was studying at Harvard, he figured it would take two, maybe three, years to fix education in the United States. That was over three decades ago. The other is D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose portrayal leaves little question as to why she is just as despised as she is revered. Often coming off more heartless than passionate, we see Rhee terminating a principal and displaying contempt for union leadership uninterested in bargaining with her.

If Canada is the visionary, Rhee is the Donald Trump-esque executive ready and willing to yell “you’re fired” when she doesn’t see optimal results. Together, the dynamic --and controversial—duo are the quasi-leaders of the new education reform movement in love with charter schools and convinced that a flawed system, with its rubber rooms and unearned tenure, is to blame for the majority of our students’ woes. That explanation oversimplifies things, of course. But the film does leave you wondering why traditional public schools aren’t adopting some or all of the tactics that high-performing charters have proved effective.

A documentary about education wouldn’t be nearly as thought-provoking without hearing from students, which makes the five children featured in “Waiting for Superman” the most important characters of all. Interestingly enough, only three of them are applying to charters because their neighbor schools are failing. For Emily, an eighth grader from an affluent family, it’s because she doesn’t want to attend a high school that uses a “tracking” system. And for Nakia’s mother, the inability to afford Catholic school any longer is the reason she hopes the stars align for her daughter.

Which brings us to the most disturbing part of the movie – the lottery. Hundreds of families huddling inside gymnasiums and auditoriums to find out if their children will be the chosen ones might create great drama, but the aftermath leaves you nauseous. And while a sigh of relief comes from knowing that the children are at an advantage simply because their parents or guardians took the time to apply for charter schools, you can’t help but feel like the deck has been stacked against the ones who don’t hear their number called.

In the end, “Waiting for Superman” leaves you with eyes full of tears, a head full of questions and most importantly, a topic you can’t stop talking about. The film is by no means perfect (its greatest flaw being that of all the educators featured, not one of them is currently in a classroom) but the kind of discussion it will undoubtedly create means Guggenheim has once again done his job.

Let’s just hope the sequel has a happier ending.

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Business: Schilling Had EDC At Hello

Originally Appeared at Rhode Island's Future on 7/28/2010

Members of the RIEDC want us to believe they thought long and hard about bringing Curt Schilling’s video game company to the state. They keep telling us about the extensive conversations and the sleepless nights they had while making the decision. But you know what was really going through their heads Monday morning before they voted 8-to-1 to offer 38 Studios a $75 million loan guarantee to move to Rhode Island?


“How many baseballs can I get Curt to sign before he asks for a few extra mil?”

And…

“Would this be the appropriate time to ask Curt to speak at the Hasbro gala?”


The negotiations may have lasted a couple months but the EDC made its decision long ago. Schilling knew that. That’s why he didn’t need to play Massachusetts against Rhode Island. Schilling treated the EDC like tourists in Los Angeles, smitten with the first star willing to nod in their direction. He was right. They’d give Peter Griffin $50 million if they could add him to their rolodexes.

It’s a state of fan boys, no different from the fanatic gamers and Spiderman wannabees who flooded San Diego last week for Comic-Con. That’s where 38 Studios Art Director Todd McFarlane –creator of Spawn- promised that the company’s first release will “kill some people better in this game than anybody kills anybody.”

Something tells me that’s not how Schilling sold his idea to the EDC. Then again, Schilling was probably so busy rehashing tales from the night Red Sox Nation’s fortunes changed forever that he didn’t really need to sell his idea at all.

In all fairness, 38 Studios will have street cred in the virtual world. McFarlane and author R.A. Salvatore are to fantasy gamers what Schilling is to Red Sox fans. And they’ve got Electronic Arts, the largest brand in all of video gaming, publishing their first project, an RPG titled, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Those names carry a lot of clout.

The problem is that no matter who is attached to the project, and really, no matter how good the game actually is, 38 Studios probably needs to get lucky for the game to become a smash hit. There is no guarantee. And in an election season where everyone and their Virgin Mary statue wants to preach fiscal responsibility, it seems like taking a chance on a video game company ran by a guy whose credentials essentially amount to being really good at World of Warcraft is far too risky.

$75 million for a couple hundred jobs and we’re left to be the mop up men if Schilling can’t deliver. Let’s just hope the EDC holds on to those autographs.

Maybe eBay will help us get some of that money back if 38 Studios goes belly up.

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Sports: Is the Big East too difficult for its own good?

Originally Appeared at Dan's Take on 3/19/2010

When the final buzzer sounded at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence Saturday night, another wild regular season in the Big East came to an end. The last game of the season didn’t feature two of the league’s elite teams, but there might not be anyone better than Providence College and Seton Hall to give you an idea of just how difficult the conference was this year.

If not for DePaul, the Friars would have finished at the bottom of the Big East. They ended the season having allowed more points-per-game than any team in league history. But they were also the sixth highest scoring team in America, which meant that even for a team that went 4-14 in conference play, they weren’t exactly a pushover. A poor shooting night against Providence and it would feel like you were playing Syracuse or Villanova.

Seton Hall is what Providence wishes it could be. The Pirates finished just outside the top ten nationally in scoring, played a little bit better defense, were slightly deeper and probably caught a few more breaks than the Friars this season. Bobby Gonzalez’s team finished .500 in league play and put itself on the NCAA Tournament bubble by beating all the teams worse than them and very few of the ones better than them. They were the most average team in the most exceptional league in the country.

So if a team who finished in 15th place in the conference could beat you on any given night and a 9-9 team featured the league’s third leading scorer (Jeremy Hazell) and top rebounder (Herb Pope), the teams at the top of the conference must be tailor-made for deep runs in next week’s NCAA Tournament, right?

Right?

The answer might not be as clear as it seems. Yes, Syracuse, the regular season champion, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Villanova all have the talent to reach the Final Four. But after playing 18 games plus a conference tournament in a league where you rarely ever get a night off, the question is, will anyone have anything left in the tank?

Hours before Seton Hall defeated Providence, the top ranked Orange lost to Louisville for the second time this season. The loss wasn’t all that surprising considering it was senior day for the Cardinals and the last game ever at Freedom Hall. Syracuse also had very little left to play for. They were already guaranteed the top seed in the Big East Tournament and most pundits have penciled them in as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

None of that stopped Wesley Johnson from playing 38 minutes in the game. The Orange’s best player was among the league’s leaders in minutes played this season despite concerns about a leg injury he suffered against Providence in earl y February. After his minutes were limited in that game and the one that followed, Johnson played at least 36 minutes in each of his team’s final seven games.

The reason for his overuse was simple: Five of those games were against teams likely heading to the NCAA Tournament; another was against UConn, one of Syracuse’s biggest rivals; and the other one was probably the final home game of his career assuming he declares for the NBA Draft after the season.

Johnson isn’t the only player in the Big East who could see the wear and tear of such a treacherous regular season take its toll at the worst possible time. The league saw more players average at least 34 minutes per game than any other conference in the country this season.

The concern will only get worse at the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden this week. Barring a major upset, it is conceivable that any team who survives until Thursday’s quarterfinals will be safe on Selection Sunday. That means winning the Big East Championship will take beating three tournament-bound teams in three days. It has the chance to be one of the most exciting and competitive tournaments in league history, but at what cost?

Making it to Saturday could leave teams running on empty come the NCAA tournament.

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Sports: Inequality still present in sports

Originally Appeared at Dan's Take on 1/19/2010

The Seattle Seahawks didn’t officially name Pete Carroll their head coach until last Monday, but anyone with even a passing interest in the NFL knew the deal had been in place for at least three days. Both sides just needed to hammer out some last minute contractual details and the Seahawks needed to fulfill one pesky little obligation: The Rooney Rule.

Named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule requires all NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching or front office position before making a hire. At its best, the rule gives otherwise overlooked minorities an opportunity to get a foot in the door and has led to a 12 percent increase in African American head coaches since 2003. But most of the time, the rule is nothing more than a fa├žade so teams don’t have Al Sharpton knocking at their doors every time they hire another white head coach.

Most of the time, there are no actual minority candidates. There are just pawns used to let the game play out.

The Seahawks had no intention of hiring Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier just as Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had no intention of bringing in anyone other than Mike Shanahan at the beginning of the month. But both teams still made sure to cover themselves by interviewing a minority candidate before moving forward with their first choices.

That’s the way the Rooney Rule typically plays out. For every success story, like Mike Tomlin of the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, there are ten Leslie Frazier’s, who go into the interview knowing everything is a sham and they have zero chance of getting a head coaching gig. Their best hope is to be impressive enough so teams can tell the media how intelligent and eloquent they were. Then they might have a shot at a job down the line.

Sports aren’t supposed to work this way, of course. The sports leagues like to brag about how progressive they are, how if the civil rights movement is complete anywhere, it’s in football or basketball, where minorities are the overwhelming majority. They love to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and all he accomplished, but they do it in a way that says, “Hey look at us. We’ve done the best of all.”

They do have good reason to show off. After all, of the 50 highest paid athletes in the country, 33 are black or Hispanic. To young children in most urban neighborhoods, it still appears that the best way to get rich is through sports.

But what isn’t focused on nearly enough is the number of athletes who make it all the way to the pros and still end up broke. Last year, Sports Illustrated reported that 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress and that 60% of NBA players are broke within five years of being out of the league. You do the math. If the majority of professional athletes are minorities, then how are they doing financially when their playing days are over?

At least part of the reason so money former athletes have money problems is that they don’t have anything to do when their careers are over. Very few will ever get into coaching and even less will have a legitimate chance at a head coaching job. In football, there are just 17 African-American head coaches in the NFL and the Football Bowl Subdivision. In the NBA, there are six African-American head coaches and of the current top 25 teams in Division I men’s college basketball, only three have black coaches.

Here’s what needs to happen: There needs to be a mandatory rule that at least a certain number of minorities must be placed on all coaching staffs in every sport. The Rooney Rule only exists in the NFL and it’s treated more as a formality than anything else. The rest of the professional sports leagues and the NCAA do nothing to promote minority coaching candidates. But putting at least one minority coach on every staff would ensure that they at least get their foot in the door. Maybe then we’ll start to see changes.

Because right now, best of all just ain’t good enough.

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