Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homeric Epithets and Mercurial Forward Ron Artest

I'm not sure whether this is simple lazy sportswriting or the emergence of mythic "tradition" in sportswriting, but considering the pre-occupations of this blog, let's go for the mythic.

In writing about the NBA, writers often refer to Ron Artest as "mercurial forward Ron Artest." And when I say often, I mean that whenever you read or hear the phrase "mercurial forward" you should assume the name "Ron Artest" will follow. This morning when I google the phrase, "mercurial forward", I get 9,980 hits. When I google the phrase, "mercurial forward ron artest", I get 7,760 hits. Do the math. This morning, on the Internet, the phrase "mercurial forward" refers to Ron Artest about 80% of the time. The phrase is so ingrained in the minds of basketball writers that it nearly reaches the level of Homeric epithet. This is the current culture of basketball writing. What does it mean? Does this justify a mythic approach to basketball? I, of course, say yes. The players aren't just self-mythologizing Big Shoguns or League-promoted X-Men. They are epic heroes in the classical tradition because that is the language with which we, or at least basketball writers (who are an inevitable filter on the season unless you somehow manage to watch every single game), discuss them. What I am trying to say here is that, at the very least, thinking of Ron Artest in the terms of a character in epic poetry isn't just a plausible mode, but is actually a rather common mode, cliche even. So Ron Artest is a Homeric hero? Sure. Now, what other players in the league are discussed in such formulaic and grandiose modes?

Here is the new project: try to find the epithets by which players are consistently and predictively referred to. A special prize if anyone can find an Epithet Certainty Score for an NBA player(JUST NOW INVENTED) that's higher than Ron Artest's 0.775. This is an important first step in developing a useful taxonomy of basketball writing's neo-Homeric traditions and cliches.

Epithet Certainty Score: Divide the Google hits for "[epithet] [player]" by the Google hits for "[epithet]". Leave the results in the comments.

HINT: Surprisingly, "bovine Tim Duncan" doesn't seem to get any hits

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Most Wu-Tang Player: Shaq?

One of the questions I have been pondering lately is very simple. Who is the most Wu-Tang player in the NBA? The answer that came back to me immediately was Shaq. Now, I was suspicious of this gut reaction, because it seemed too easy. Surely, Ron Artest maybe partied with ODB or something? I could believe that maybe someone give AI a Wu-Gambino name. Hell, surely there's someone from Staten Island who knew them growing up? Any of these might be true, but I can't find a single definitive answer.

What I do know is that Shaq is thoroughly Wu-Tang. There is the historical fact of Shaq's rap career. There is the issue of Shaq-Fu. There are all the nicknames and made up stories. But all of these facts merely serves as evidence for Shaq's dedication to his own self-mythology. Self-mythology is a tricky business, especially in basketball, but it's par for the course in hip hop. Every rapper knows he's a superhero, one of the X-Men. They know they need special powers and an origin story. Not every basketball player is aware of these requirements, but they do exist, and are ruthlessly imposed by the fan and the media, desperate for tasty Epic Narratives to satiate their endless hunger.

The Wu narrative, for example, is irresistible. "Straight from the slums of Shaolin," RZA told the story of a lost, but now unstoppable ninja clan that would stop at nothing short of world domination. Shaq didn't just embrace a similar narrative for himself, but rather took that exact same narrative and modified it to fit the solo warrior instead of the clan. For Shaq, there was never a team narrative, but rather the individual heroic narrative with an inevitable ending: Shaq reaching the top and becoming the Big Shogun. He wanders the land from team to team, hoping to in the end to have distributed at least Five Rings. This is not a story that we invented for Shaq or imposed upon him from the outside. This is a story that Shaq told himself. Claiming to be the Big Shogun because you have killed all of the rival warlords is just about as Wu-Tang as it gets.

Then there is the pretty powerful credential of Shaq's actual, successful rap career. Granted, Shaq is not the greatest rapper in the world, but he's had his moments. Back in the 90's he had some serious guest spots with Biggie and Jay-Z appearing on his albums not to mention a dozen others. This was all before he appeared in Aaron Carter videos, but it did happen.

Speaking of which, this also happened: "No Hook" is off of Shaq's second album, "Shaq-Fu: Da Return." Featuring RZA and Method Man, this pretty much nails down the issue. What other player has his own Wu-Tang joint where he's sandwiched between RZA and Meth? Shaq might not be the most hip hop player in the NBA (well, I guess he might be), but he's definitely the most Wu-Tang.

Show me someone else's Wu-Tang joint with GZA and Ghostface and I might change my mind, but right now I'm considering this case fairly definitively solved.

Shaq to the Cavaliers: How to Stop The Unstoppable

Draft night is over and done, and with it came few surprises. I'm happy to report that my predictions laid out in my mock draft were astonishingly accurate and I promise further analysis in the future. The biggest stories on Tuesday, however, were two blockbuster trades of superstars to contenders in the East. Vince Carter will join the already loaded Magic in Orlando and in, metaphorically and literally, bigger news, Shaquille O'Neal will join Lebron James and the Cleavland Cavaliers. The Big Shogun has left Phoenix to try to gift the young King with a title, as he did for Kobe and Dwayne Wade.

Shaq is old, and, because of a profoundly disappointing inability to alter the flow of time, is getting even older. That said, Shaq is still one of the most dominant players around the basket in the entire league and a massive, game-altering presence on either end. Combined with the Chosen One, Cleavland is looking more and more like a juggernaut. Stopping Lebron alone was a problem that few teams could even begin to wrap their heads around. The idea of trying to stop both Lebron and Shaq seems like a near impossibility.

Fortunately, despite Twitter boasts to the contrary, Shaq is (probably) not a living incarnation of an ancient god or unbeatable omniscient and omnipotent force from another dimension. He has his weaknesses and flaws and they have been conveniently scouted out and been reported on. I refer you to this video:

There are several applicable lessons would be Shaq slayers can take from this video. I will enumerate the main points of this strategy.

1. Psychological intimidation. Shaq is a formidable physical presence, so you should try to press any mental advantage you might have by getting in his head.

"I knew I could take him
Stared' at Shaq, psyche him out
I said O'Neal, you're in my house now"

With the draft night revelation that Shaq has been having not verbal but mental conversations with Lebron, however, this tactic might not be worth pursuing. Clearly the Big Aristotle has been training his psychic abilities.

2. Rely on deception and steals. It seems underhanded, but you want to win right?

"I had a plan, that I could change the pace
I said, Yo Shaq you didn't tie your shoelace
He looked down, I stole the ball
I'm taking him to school now, watch me all."

3. Reliance on threes. Be efficient and try to only take open and high percentage shots. This is a good way to maximize the bang for your buck against the stifling defense.

"A 3-pointer, nothing but net
Come on Shaq, had enough yet?
Down by two, I'm catching up
I guess your getting nervous
Cuz you already lost"

4. Dunk, dunk, dunk. These are the highest percentage shots there are, and, done properly, less likely to get blocked by Diesel. They have the added bonus of demoralizing Shaq and the potential of getting him in foul trouble.

"Dunk after dunk
Jam after jam
Cheerleaders are cheering
Aaron's the man"

Shaq is a challenging opponent, but as you can see from the video, there are proven ways in which he can be defeated. Lesson learned: Careful adherence to these principles and the advice of washed up former middle school pop stars can help give your team the edge it needs to take down the newly beshaq'd Cavaliers.

Still no hope for stopping Lebron though.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Mock Draft 2009, Part III

This is part III. For maximum enjoyment, you should start with part I then proceed to part II before reading this. Happy Draft, everyone!

21. Hornets
New Orleans is rumored to be looking for a three point assassin and a credible shooter to help extend defenses. The Hornets have worked out John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Ramon Mercador and have been fairly impressed with the drive and determination of these men. The most compelling prospect for the Hornets' needs, however, might come from overseas. From Serbia, Gavrilo Princip seems to offer a promising combination of shooting and showmanship that drew a lot of attention in Europe. Look for the savvy Hornets to use their pick on him if he's still available.

22. Mavericks
After John McCain failed the physical exam, what was going to be a relative no-brainer of a pick turned more difficult. Fortunately, Mark Cuban himself found a player he particularly like and admired while watching a late night movie on basic cable: the character Bret Maverick (as played by Mel Gibson), from the 1994 film "Maverick," a remake of 1950's television series. The fact that Benjamin Martin of the film "The Patriot" has already been drafted by the NFL's New England Patriots introduces a potential wrinkle as both are played by Mel Gibson. I'm confident however that Maverick's easy charm and clever card sharp ways will help him figure out a way to wrangle himself out of this jam.

23. Kings
The Kings have a chance to draft a former number one ranked high school player turned genuine sleeper with All-Star potential written all over him. Though he caused a big sensation in high school, he doesn't seem to have been heavily scouted since then and his NBA rights are available to whatever team is daring enough to make the pick. No easy answers to why he seems to be off the NBA's map, but perhaps the backlash against a once much-hyped player gone too far? Watch the highlight reel and I think you'll agree.

I think Teen Wolf would be a talented and immediate contributor for Sacremento.

24. Trailblazers
In a few much publicized interviews, the front office, players and coaches of the Trailblazers have all expressed a desire to draft a player with a heaping helping of that great intangible, "toughness." To this end, the Trailblazers should seek to draft some of the toughest known-quantities available. Specifically, they should look to draft a star of one of the cable survival shows. While Survivorman is arguably smarter, Bear Grylls's military training and relative youth offers a combined package of discipline and athleticism to complement his legendary toughness. At this point I would like to mention that Bear Grylls drank his own urine once as well as squeezing water out of elephant shit to prevent dehydration. Dude would practically die before surrendering a lay up or a loose ball.

25. Thunder
Oklahoma City has a talented young core with Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook. All they need is time and a few more skilled role players. The Thunder's front office should see this golden moment and stay aggressive with their drafting and not be afraid to take a few risks.


26. Bulls
The Bulls are still in rebuilding mode, though since drafting Derrick Rose, the team finally has a piece worth building around. Chicago's front office should be on the lookout for dynamic players who will compliment the play of Rose and be able to play a supporting role without their ego getting in the way. I think Chicago should draft Scottie Pippen.

27. Grizzlies
Memphis, looking for a way to draw a crowd, should consider drafting one or more of the Nerdlucks from the movie "Space Jam." Though on their own, the Nerdlucks are not skilled basketball players, their ability to steal the talent of other players and transform into Monstars make them a great asset on the court and at the ticket office. The possibility that either the Looney Tunes characters or Michael Jordan will intervene to come play special games against a Monstar-laden Grizzlies team should only increase their appeal to the front office. In particular, Pound and Bang seem like top prospects.

28. Timberwolves
This is Minnesota's third pick in the first round of this notably weak draft. The pickings should be fairly slim by this point, but Minnesota should just try to get the best possible value out of this pick. Whether it's a hare, mice, or even carrion, the Timberwolves should be able to find some satisfying morsel to fulfill their ravenous and all-consuming hunger.

29. Lakers
Since Phil Jackson has now won ten championship rings he's unlocked the ability to play through the entire regular season using any of the available alternate costumes and uniforms. Winning ten rings also activates the Cheat Code entry form, accessible from the main menu. Entering "wiltabduljordan" activates God mode, while "onemoretime" automatically skips directly to the NBA Finals. So I don't know, maybe he should just draft an old friends cousin or something as a favor since it doesn't really matter anymore. Maybe Jack Nicholson would be nice.

30. Cavaliers
Danny Green makes so much sense if they can address their front court needs through trades and free agency. Think about it. No, no. Just think about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Mock Draft 2009, Part II

Part I is here.

11. Nets
New Jersey, like many teams such as the rival Knicks, are positioning themselves to sign one or more members of the vaunted free agent class of 2010, with the chief prize being Lebron. With this in mind, New Jersey should try to draft pieces to make the Nets more attractive to these free agents. In this case, I think the best move might be to draft Lebron James's mother. With the Nets looking to move Vince Carter, there will be room at the shooting guard position for Lebron's mom's spot up shooting skills and vocal defensive leadership. Her underrated athleticism and ability to potentially lure in the Chosen One make her a can't miss prospect. Surprisingly, Chris Bosh has also said in interviews that he would be more likely to consider New Jersey as a destination if he knew Lebron's mom was playing there.

12. Bobcats
The Bobcats owners, coaches and other front office staff have made Michael Jordan promise to not draft any Carolina guys this year. Torn up by the pathological need to draft either Lawson, Ellington, Hansbrough, or Green, Jordan decides to compromise by drafting someone from Chapel Hill who did not play on the 2009 Championship Team. With the 12th pick, Michael Jordan drafts classic Chapel Hill band Polvo to the Bobcats, where they offer much needed depth at the guitarist position. Suddenly, FreeDarko starts writing a lot more about the Bobcats.

13. Pacers
Expect Larry Bird to look to his experience with the Celtics to inform his take on the draft. Just like in Boston, Larry Bird knows that a quality mythical mount is essential to winning a championship. Who can forget how Bill Russell used his hippogriff mount to win 11 NBA championships? Look for Larry Bird to try to draft a quality mount for Danny Granger such as a unicorn or maybe even a pegasus if one is still available.

14. Suns
The Suns will try to replace an aging Steve Nash with a younger Steve Nash. As such, Phoenix should draft the 13 year old clone that has been growing in a liquid filled tube underneath the Phoenix home court. As part of his rookie contract, Steve Nash agreed to research and develop the technology necessary to clone himself. The clone, as fas as anyone knows, has been growing according to schedule. Now, some GM's might be skeptical about drafting a thirteen year old, but remember, Ricky Rubio was only 14 when he started playing overseas and Steve Nash himself has vowed to invent some sort of consciousness transferring or time compression technology to help allow his heir to step in with near complete continuity. Assuming that the clone has not become a terrible abomination in the eyes of God and a horrible affront to nature bent on murder, this plan should work out quite well.

15. Pistons
The Pistons need to consider their long term plans and financial situation. They should give some strong thought to trying to sell this pick for some cash, which Detroit desperately needs. They could make it appealing to other teams by packaging the pick with a fleet of Ford Tauruses and the capitalist relics from the sacred temple of Ford himself. Anyway a few locks of a captain of industry's hair, some domestic sedans, and the fifteenth pick in the draft should be enough to entice some team to hand over some cash, giving them the financial flexibility to make a splash on the free agent scene.

15. Bulls
Coming off a wildly successful season after drafting Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, Chicago should try to replicate that drafting success. While it might be trickier to accomplish this with the 16th pick, Chicago could always try to trade. up. If this isn't possible, I would recommend simply drafting Derrick Rose again considering how well that worked out last year.

17. 76ers
If Ty Lawson is stupidly still available, Philadelphia should take him.

18. Timberwolves
With all of the caribou, moose, and larger game off the board, Minnesota should draft for value and select the best available option of those remaining in the draft. Be it a a white-tailed deer, a beaver, or even just some lemmings, the T'Wolves should just try to satiate their hunger as best they can lest the rest of the team turn on Kevin Love and rip his body apart.

19. Hawks
Impressed by the impact that the live Hawk mascot had swooping around the Atlanta arena during playoffs, expect the Hawks to try to upgrade at this position with a much bigger bird. An eagle seems like a likely choice, though the particular kind is open to much speculation. If the Hawks are willing to move up in size and sacrifice a little agility and maneuverability for size, an albatross might be a good choice.

20. Jazz
Many people expect that Salt Lake City will select a clean cut, heartland farmboy looking, white dude whose name rhymes with Mansbrough to play in the land of clean cut, heartland farmboy looking white dudes. This thinking is wrong. EXCLUSIVE SCOOP: The Utah Jazz are drafting Lil Wayne because Jerry Sloan also loves autotune, free style mixtapes, and recreational use of codeine cough syrup and also because Kirilenko won't party with him anymore.

Picks 21-30 are in part III.

My Mock Draft 2009, Part I

In this multi-part series (parts one, two, and three), I'd like to lay out some advice for teams regarding the NBA draft. The easiest and most formulaic way to do this is through a mock draft. Special thanks to the good folks at Disciples of Clyde for planting the seeds for this idea. LET'S GO!

1. Clippers
With the number one pick available in the draft, the Clippers have resolved to take the obvious and clear best available player: Stephen Strasburg. This right handed pitcher out of San Diego State has a devastating fastball that should give the Clippers the strength they've long been lacking from either their starting rotation or bullpen.

2. Grizzlies
The Grizzlies, troubled by the harsh economic climate, have elected to draft FRIENDSHIP. This prospect has a lot of potential upside and should be an invaluable asset to such a young team. Furthermore, FRIENDSHIP, as an abstract, though undeniable important, concept, is still under contract in Europe, which will allow the Grizzlies to draft it without having to add anything to their payroll right away. This sort of flexibility should be a big asset for the cash-strapped team.

3. Thunder
Blake Griffin will join the too-talented young TEAM OF THE FUTURE. By accumulating such talented athletes and skilled players, Oklahoma City will one day be poised to win the NBA title. And on that day, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and Jeff Green will ride their jet packs and hover cars back home and pack for a trip to Space Disneyland on Mars. Because it will be the future then and I imagine we will have all these things.

4. Kings
Sacremento will be picking critically lauded actor Ian McShane of the HBO western ,"Deadwood" and the short-lived NBC drama, "Kings." In his brief stint with the NBC show that mixed biblical allegory with a clever tale about a modern day monarchy, McShane showed real leadership and flair as King Silas. Though the show has been cancelled, Sacremento has been impressed by his proven success as a King and hopes to help him chase down the NBA Championship and Best Actor Emmy he has long deserved, but failed to win.

5. Wizards
Washington, seeking to fill a perceived lack of depth in their guard rotation, ought to give President Barack Obama a good look. One of the most thoroughly scouted players in the draft, his game is well-known and steady. He could provide a winning attitude, veteran leadership, and an all-round inspirational presence while also providing quality minutes each game spelling for Gilbert Arenas. These strengths more than offset the weaknesses of limited availability and increased age.

6. Timberwolves
The Timberwolves need to look to the future, but they shouldn't look to neglect their immediate needs. The Timberwolves should give some thought to drafting a herd of caribou. Such a move, I suspect, would improve relations with the T'Wolves and the front office in Minnesota.

7. Warriors
Golden State needs to realize that a party of adventurers can't hope to succeed if it is composed only of Warriors. Expect Golden State to draft for balance and utility, perhaps selecting a cleric or wizard, though it's easy to see how a bard or druid with a high charisma might provide a welcome addition to this band of companions. A rogue might be useful, but the specialized skill set might not be the best fit for Coach Don Nelson who likes to go versatile. Under no circumstances should they draft a barbarian.

8. Knicks
D'Antoni needs a young, super-talented point guard to key his high octane system. The Knicks should therefore look to simultaneously draft Ricky Rubio, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, and Jrue Holliday and make them square off in a sort of post-apocalyptic Mad Max/Escape from New York situation. The one who survives and manages to dispose of both Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell will be the new starting point guard for the Knicks.

9. Raptors
The Raptors should consider drafting the Syfy television network despite it's stupid name. The network's experience making and broadcasting the films Raptor Island and Planet Raptor show a good understanding of how to deal with and play with Toronto. Likewise, I think that the Syfy television network could learn a lot from Toronto's new coach, the ghost of Jurassic Park game warden, Robert Muldoon.

10. Bucks
No one cares. Fuck, I don't know. Johnny Flynn. Yeah, sure, they'll draft Johnny Flynn.

Picks 11-20 are in part II.

Picks 21-30 are in part III.

Wayne Ellington, Human Sacrifice, and an Ill-Advised Manifesto

In March of 2009, I had a dream that, on a Mayan altar, Wayne Ellington sacrificed me to the gods. For the sake of historical context, let me clarify a few things:
  1. In March of 2009, Wayne Ellington was the starting shooting guard of the University of North Carolina men's basketball team.
  2. At the time, this basketball team was engaged in the NCAA basketball tournament, in pursuit of a championship which they did end up winning.
  3. By physical description and comparison to archaelogical findings, the altar was actually most likely an Aztec altar, but in my mind, I thought of it as a Mayan altar. To clarify, the altar was on top of a pyramid and done with a knife, which is more of an Aztec thing, while it seems that the Mayans preferred to throw their sacrifices down sacred sinkholes to appease the water god, Chaac.

Why am I telling you this? To emphasize two things. The first and most important is that I think about basketball a lot. Specifically, basketball played by the University of North Carolina men and women's teams as well as the kind played by the National Basketball Association has been a source of great joy for me. I love watching, talking, and thinking about basketball. It's on my mind so much that it's not that unusual for me to dream about the Tar Heels third scoring option, though the part where he sacrifices me on top of a pyramid is, admittedly, odd. In any case, if I'm thinking about basketball so much and I enjoy talking and thinking about it so much, I thought that I might also enjoy writing about it. Hopefully, you will enjoy reading about it too. Hence, this blog.

The second thing the anecdote about the dream illustrates is how I think about basketball. In short, I like to think of basketball mythologically. When I was young, when I watched basketball, I just saw ten guys running up and down the court, bouncing a ball. Even with the sophistication of understanding the game better, my enjoyment of the sport was still as dry as the boxscore or an AP recap. I didn't truly come to love the game until I started to see basketball in terms of Epic Narratives. Once you start looking at Epic Narratives, a whole new world opens up. A basketball game, taken bare, in a vacuum, is not an event of great moral significance. Carolina vs. Duke, on the other hand, does have moral significance on the planes of class, race, and philosophy. If you look at a player as simply an athlete, they are inherently not as interesting as when you look at that same player as the messianic, Chosen One. Basketball is just a silly game played by some incredible athletes, and while I appreciate that on some level, what makes it more interesting to me is the stories that we make up, the Epic Narratives we craft. In short, I like basketball because I like the mythology we devise to make it all make sense and to keep it fun.

So now, I hope to use this space to share with you some thoughts about basketball in all of its mythic glory. This isn't a new way of doing things and this kind of thinking about basketball has lots of antecedents which I will certainly be linking to as appropriate. A specific mention of FreeDarko is necessary, however: I'm quite sensitive to and agree with most FD sensibilities, be they philosophical, stylistic, or aesthetic and I'm sure that their particular approach will have a heavy impact on this blog. If FreeDarko is the modernist (post-modernist?) reaction to the realist approach of sports journalism, then hopefully this blog will help to more fully fill the niche of magical realism and surrealism. That looks really stupid seeing it in print, but hey, that's what everyone else wanted from basketball writing right?