Thumping the melons in the BBQ capital of Texas

Aside

Barbecue arguments are like political arguments, only less objective. Which is to say they’re infuriating and unresolvable. For example, every time I hear someone say Oklahoma Joe’s or Jack Stack is the ultimate Kansas City barbecue joint, I want to stab them with a rib bone.

Barbecue is personal. 

So I know that a barbecue argument is an inevitable outcome of this post, and I accept that, but that is not the goal here. I am not going to try to convince anybody of anything one way or another.

Having said that, I don’t think I can in good faith not write that the best brisket I know of in the world is made in central Texas. If you are at a barbecue joint in Texas and you don’t order the brisket, you have committed a cultural crime equal to that of driving past the Grand Canyon and not stopping to look at it or going to the Kentucky Derby and not betting on the race.

Texas barbecue is brisket, brisket is Texas barbecue. Anything else is a neat little sideshow. And how can I describe it? Well there is something about the smoke itself down here. I assume they’re all using at least some mesquite wood but I didn’t ask. When you walk into Smitty’s in Lockhart, you are greeted by an open flame burning on the floor.

You think I am embellishing.

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And that, sirs and ma’ams, is why they can’t make good barbecue in California. Too many codes. In Texas, you can build a fire on the floor right next to the cash register and you don’t even have to put a little rope around it.

Oh, has somebody gotten burnt up? Well then this was a good lesson for them about fire being hot. Bet they won’t make that mistake again.

If you don’t know, Lockhart is sort of the barbecue capital of Texas, which would put it high in the running for barbecue capital worldwide, up there with Kansas City and Memphis and whatever part of North Carolina you want to choose. It’s a small town with one of those Main Streets that remind you of the 50s. On Sundays you can see Al Dressen and the Barbecue Playboys play at Black’s Barbecue.

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I was with my wife, Abby and my friend, Jacob. In Lockhart, we visited Kreuz’s, Black’s and Smitty’s and near as I can tell the whole operation doesn’t differ much from place to place. At Kreuz’s and Smitty’s, you walk into a hot smoky room to order. You tell the guy at the register what you want — One rib, a 1/4-pound of brisket and a sausage link? Sure. — and then he tells another guy who reaches into a giant black metal box and stabs a slab of meat, pulls it out and carves it up to order. I didn’t pay close attention to the prices, but that hypothetical order I just made would probably be something like $7. It’s not expensive.

Other than the smoke and the brisket itself — it really is different — the primary distinction between Texas barbecue and all other styles of barbecue is that Texans have developed what I consider a strange and silly kind of pride regarding barbecue sauce — they seem to think of it as cheating .

Only one barbecue place I have ever seen was so pretentious as to not only disallow sauce, but to preemptively warn you not to order it, and that distinction belongs to Kreuz’s.

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Pretentiousness is something not usually found in barbecue restaurants or small towns, but by golly there it is in the warning palate of black and yellow.This was our first stop and we went with brisket, turkey and sausage. All of it was good, in particular the brisket, some of which was served chopped and some of which was served in the slices you’re used to seeing. I thought the slices brisket was better, but that wasn’t unanimous. However you got it, it had a robust, salty bark on it with that burnt pink smoke ring on the inside.

On the way out, we evaluated.

“That was great, but you know what would have made it better?” Jacob said in the car. “Some barbecue sauce.”

Thankfully all the other places we visited offered sauce, but none of them seem to be real proud of it. It’s an afterthought, a garnish, offered with a reluctance that says, “You’re the customer and we guess that means you’re always right, but we’d really like you to try it without the sauce first.”

Well OK fine but I’ve done that plenty of times and I like sauce, all right? IS THAT OK? I especially like sauce when there’s been some real effort put into it, the way it is done in Kansas City, but that is uncommon in these parts. I have to say, though, that my compulsion to have my meat swimming in it like buffalo wings has been eliminated. Its best usage is probably closer to the way you use Tabasco on your eggs or honey on your biscuits. You’re not mopping it, you’re not slathering it, you’re not trying to drown this velvety meat in sugar and acid. You’re just drizzling it. It allows you to taste all that wonderful, delicate smoke and just complement it with a touch of tang and some sweet.

There is something magical about Wonder bread, barbecue sauce and smoked meat all dancing together (to the BBQ Playboys, most likely), and I say this as a guy who places high importance on bread quality. It’s just that, quite simply, cheap white bread is the most ideal bread medium for barbecue. I submit that if you are in a barbecue place that is offering something other than Wonderbread with its barbecue, you are in a barbecue place that is missing the point. That is a combination that cannot be improved upon and should not be messed with. It’s like a buddy cop movie about a young rule-breaking hot shot and an old vet who’s one day away from retirement. It is tried and true.

Near to Lockhart is a town called Luling, which we learned is best known for something called the “Watermelon Thump.” It is the kind of event where you can ride rides and get a funnel cake. Teenage girls compete to be voted “Thump Queen,” which sounds more like an insult than a social decoration, but nonetheless it was clear Luling is big-time watermelon country. Unfortunately the Thump Festival didn’t begin until a couple hours after we left.

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We ate more brisket, sausage and pork ribs at Luling’s City Market, the ribs being the best of the trip. Luling’s offered little bricks of cheese for 75 cents (which is uncustomary) along with dill pickles and raw yellow onions (which is). I have a bit of a ideological (and, given my stance on sauce, possibly hypocritical) objection to adding cheese to barbecue, but I can’t say I didn’t quite enjoy folding some brisket, cheese and onion in between that Wonder bread.

Because you’ve been so nice to read this far, I feel I should come with a STRONG TAKE about some of this. So here you go: If I had to stop eating meat forever, I still think my last pile of it would be the beef sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s. The best pulled pork sandwich I have ever had was at B-B-Q Shop in Memphis and there is no doubt about this: Nobody does brisket better than Texas.

An argument with myself over Yeezus

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Why is he yelling?

I mean, right? Why does it sound like he’s making this music with power tools? I am laughing, but I am laughing at this record. This album is totally preposterous.

Then again, preposterous is probably just what Kanye was going for, wasn’t it? All Kanye ever thinks about is Kanye, so he would have had the self-awareness to know we were all going to be snickering at this under our palms while trying to look like we’re taking it seriously. Right? He would know that. So we and Kayne are both laughing at the same thing: “Kanye.”

Right?

Then again, does Kanye seem like an ironical person to you? Has he ever given any indication that all of his narcissism had led to anything resembling self-awareness? Does he seem like the kind of guy that would laugh at a joke made at his expense? There is NO WAY he wanted people to find this funny. He thinks he’s The Beatles, and he thinks this is his Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But, see, that’s just the thing. Sgt. Pepper’s was largely an album of The Beatles making fun of Beatlemania, or at the very least recognizing how preposterous Beatlemania was and reacting to it. So this is Kanye West recognizing how ridiculous his public persona is and poking fun at it. This is his Sgt. Pepper, at least in that, so far as his iconography is concerned, this is the Ultimate Kanye Album.

But come on. Sgt. Pepper’s? No way. It doesn’t deserve that comparison. For one thing, it’s not much fun. Sgt. Pepper’s was fun. If you were listening closely, The Beatles were letting you in on the joke. And at times it sounded like they were sort of just messing around, and that would be followed by something downright symphonic.

So let’s not allow him the honor of a comparison to The Beatles.

Yeah, that’s it. That’s true. This is not even Kanye’s best album, but it is the thing I’ll always remember him by. And that’s not a compliment.

I don’t think.

Look at Me So I Can Get Close To You: An idiot listens to jazz for the first time

What you are about to read is a review of a jazz album by someone who has listened to a whole jazz album for the first time in his life.

I am not a music critic. I like music, and I really like criticizing things, but I don’t feel I have the credentials to be sitting here evaluating music with any kind of authority. Especially not jazz music, which has been depicted to me via popular culture as the background music while our hero seduces the leggy blonde in the cocktail bar.

In this review, you are not going to get a nuanced “take” on this record, but you are going to get an honest attempt and listening to, and describing, the music by someone who does not know how to do that.

You need to know the guitar player on the album, Andrew Trim, is my friend. We have known each other since high school, when Trim — I’m not being formal, that’s just what we called him — was a combo guard who also played loud teen-angst punk with some other guys at my school. They were called Third Person and played songs with names like, “Matt’s New Haircut.”

But anyway that was a long time ago and Trim has grown into quite the guitarist. I have no inclination to write anything about this album I don’t actually think, but I have learned in life that when you have a relationship of any kind with a guitarist, it’s best to just disclose it right off.

So, about the music.

Sitting there and just listening to music, the way you just sit there and watch a movie or just sit there and read a book or sit there and look at the paintings, is difficult for reasons I assume are obvious. We are at least the second, maybe the third, generation of Americans to whom music is really just part of the ambiance, like the curtains or the couch pillows or the scented candles. We think of music as a soundtrack to something else — a day at the beach, a house party, a romantic evening, etc. I’m going to skip the weighty cultural reasons this is probably true, because they’re tedious and everybody already knows what they are. But my point is, sitting there and listening without doing anything else required me to fight some urges possibly brought on by Twitter overdosage.

I have been doing a lot more of that, and I’ve come to enjoy listening to rock albums from front to back as a singular work rather than a collection of singles. I think a lot of people start doing this at a younger age, but I am always behind when it comes to stuff like this.

But the point is, that’s how I listened to this album.

And, let me tell you, the whole thing felt downright cinematic. This album – Look at Me So I Can Get Close to You by Danny Meyer, Andrew Trim and Charles Rumback – feels narrative, but movie narrative not journalism narrative. The wife and I both couldn’t help imagining a scene in our heads. There were sad scenes and triumphant scenes. One song in particular, “Thom Told Them to Take the Train” sounded confrontational, like when an underdog stands up to The Man in a sports movie. “Realm Devil” felt like an honest conversation at a bar at 2 a.m.

During “Fines” the wife said, “This is giving me anxiety.” Quite a trip, that “Fines.”

I wish I could speak more articulately about the musicianship, because I suspect it is quite high. Some of it was more experimental than my palate is prepared to savor. The wife had the same issue, and I likened it to being young and drinking Keystone Light and plastic-bottle vodka all the time and then being handed a glass of good whiskey and the first thing you want to do is add Coke. You’re just not ready yet. You’re not there.

But then other songs were more melodic. One of them made me think of “Planet Caravan” by Black Sabbath. Some of the songs reminded me of that kind of music, that more musical classic rock.

I found it helpful to try to make those kinds of mental connections. Something about connecting dots felt good. I feel like there are a few degrees of of separation between the music I’m familiar with and the music on this album, but I also think this album was highly emotionally communicative. I felt like the music was forcing me to consider it.

It was more escapist than most of the music I know.

This was not background music. It would not work that way. This was a little dark and a little more magnetic than that.

And that’s all a way of saying I had a nice time.

I just ate fast food and I feel terrible

I just ate a cheeseburger from a popular fast food chain, and let me tell you, I feel terrible.

It’s not just the vomiting, either. I gained 13 pounds while sitting in the drive-thru. My doctor says I am “post-diabetic,” which means the diabeetus has grown into my body like an extra appendage. There is like a mini me inside my body and if I kill him, I kill myself. What’s worse is, my body has already adapted to the cheeseburger and will accept no substitutes. I just tried to eat an apple, and my body rejected it like I had swallowed gasoline. There is apple splatter all over the kitchen, but I can’t clean it off because during the short time it was inside my body, the cheeseburger transformed it into kind of a polymer-based glue, much like that stuff you spray inside your tires to fix a leak. Fix-A-Flat. Yeah, that stuff. That’s what it turned the apple into.

This all happened within the last 25 minutes. It should be no surprise fast food works fast. It’s right there in the name.

I shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. I know that. But the trouble is, I like cheeseburgers and I especially like them when they cost less than $4. I am not a wealthy man. I cannot afford wagyu or whatever.

I just wish somebody had stopped me. Or stopped them. I wish somebody had arrested me and thrown me in jail for thinking about a cheeseburger. That way there wouldn’t be apple glue all over my kitchen right now. Either that or I wish it was illegal to form animal flesh into patty form, cook it on a grill and serve it between two pieces of bread. Don’t they know what they’re doing to us?

The government should step in.

Maybe, if we’re going to get real libertarian about this, people should be allowed to make foods I like, but they certainly shouldn’t be able to tell me about it on TV. What am I supposed to do, see a cheeseburger on TV and not buy it? Who thinks like that? Who has that kind of willpower? What, I’m supposed to be able to think for myself and make my own decisions?

I think the government should pull together a collection of really smart people. Like, the people who know the most about food and nutrition, and they should come up with the ideal human diet — something that will work for everybody. And three times a day, they should ring a bell and we could all go to our nearest trough for the feeding. There would be a community trough in every neighborhood. That way we would all eat the right things and nobody would be fat or malnourished.

The freedom to choose a lifestyle seems like a good idea in theory, but that’s an antiquated idea. What are we, cavemen? I can’t handle freedom, and I bet you can’t either.

Here is my position on advanced statistics

I am getting really tired of having this argument about advanced statistics, and I find that having it point-by-point on Twitter or G-chat or wherever ends up leading down all kinds of tributaries to nowhere and people start adopting this posture that is somehow both defensive and pompous and I’ve just had it.

So I’m going to just write it all out. That way it will be here on the Internet and I can just send out this link whenever I get involved in one of these things.

Here goes:

Like 12 years ago Brad Pitt and fat Jonah Hill figured out that baseball scouts were evaluating players based on all kinds of ridiculous myths like how hot their girlfriends were. It should have been obvious this was nonsense, but because baseball is more stuck in the past than a Mississippi diner, this stuff was allowed to pass as real scouting for like 3,000 years. Fortunately, fat Jonah Hill was so smart he realized the most important thing was to get on base and it didn’t really matter how you got there. He then expanded this kind of thinking to every aspect of baseball, and destroyed a million stupid myths. Brad Pitt applied all of this to the Oakland A’s, pissed off everybody in baseball, and won 500 games in a row with a bad team. This changed baseball forever.

No rational person who understands the subject matter would argue this is not the correct way to analyze baseball. Baseball was not originally designed to be a statistician’s game, of course, but it is the ultimate statistician’s game. Almost everything that happens in a baseball game can be isolated and, therefore, converted into a probability. If you don’t understand this, you can’t speak intelligently about the game, and this has become obvious to most baseball fans.

As a youngster, I even applied an extremely rudimentary level of this kind of analysis to my own baseball performance. My mom would keep track of the data, and then we would do the best we could on the back of an envelope to look past things like ERA and batting average to see a more precise truth. If you are in the business of trying to win baseball games or are trying to have a baseball career, you are a fool to not look at the sport this way.

That all said, I am not in the baseball business, I don’t care who wins baseball games and I don’t personally find these kinds of conversations to be interesting. They make the sport less fun to me, because they make the games themselves feel empty and somehow even more pedantic than they already are. But many other people love all this and that’s fine. They are talking about a sport they like in a smart way.

We good? Everybody OK with this? All right.

What happened next was that people started applying this kind of advanced statistical analysis to other sports. Much of this was logical to the point of being obvious. An example of this is “effective field goal percentage” (eFG%), which makes the simple observation that if you’re shooting 3-pointers you don’t need to make as many as you do if you’re shooting 2-pointers. This doesn’t need to be explained to most people, but eFG% is nonetheless a nice neat little way of expressing that idea with a specific number, if that what makes you feel good. There are lots of other examples of things like this. We have statistics that measure not just how many rebounds a player gets per game, but what percentage of the available rebounds he gets, which eliminates numerous variables (pace of play, shooting percentages, etc.) to give us a more precise measure of how well a certain player performs a task. A lot of this stuff, to me, seems to be an exercise in quantifying the obvious — for example, there’s one in which somebody will watch a game with a 4-point differential with 12 minutes left and calculate the trailing team has 48 percent chance of winning or something — but whatever.

Great. Love it. Go forth and prosper.

We run into problem here, though, because unlike in baseball, the individual performances of basketball players can’t be isolated from each other. If you are (1) not an idiot and (2) somebody who has watched both sports, the reason for this doesn’t need to be explained to you, so I’m not going to bother. The point is, the basketball metrics aren’t as precise as the baseball metrics and never will be because of the nature of the sports.

But they’re still pretty good. They’re pretty good at telling us what happened. It’s up to us to figure out the Why but at least we are pretty close to knowing the What.

So this seems like it’s working out, and now we start trying to do this kind of thing with teams. Except we aren’t just tabulating what happened in their games, we’re trying to compare them to other teams. When they all play each other, as they do in the NBA, this seems to work out OK. Every NBA team plays every other NBA team multiple times per season. And there aren’t very many NBA teams, but there are an absolute buttload of NBA games. Further, the level of talent in the NBA has very little variance from team to team, in part because there are only 450 playing jobs available and partly because like most professional sports leagues the NBA is structured to create as much parity as possible. The worst teams get the best draft picks, there is a salary cap, there is free agency, and so on.

Now, if you’ve ever attempted to lay wood flooring (which, I’m sure, is totally all of you), you’ll be able naturally conceptualize what I’m about to describe. But even if you haven’t attempted to lay wood flooring, you should be able to get this. Ready? OK: You lay the first plank, and it’s straight on the line. Then you lay the next one, and butt it right against the other and it looks pretty much perfect, but it’s off just a tiny bit, so little you can’t even see it. And then you lay the next one, and it’s a little bit off too, and this goes on and on until you get to the other side of the room and — oh no — you’re off by six inches and you stand up and the lines in your floor are fanning out and you’ve got this weird triangular shape that can’t possibly be filled with boards and you realize you were off just a little in the beginning but it compounded and even though you hammered those boards in one-by-one just like the book said, you aren’t even close.

Well, we’ve started laying flooring with college basketball, and we’ve got big problems, starting with the two factors I mentioned about the NBA. Because there are more than 5,000 scholarship Division I basketball players out there, the talent disparity is enormous. And because there are 347 Division I teams out there, the schedule doesn’t even come close to pitting every team against every other team.

The metric that is easiest to understand and therefore cited the most is the RPI, which attempts to measure the strength of a team’s schedule and its performance against that schedule. This would be a wonderful thing to know, because it would basically end every argument about which college basketball teams are deserving of which seeds.

Unfortunately, it’s Utopia.

The basis of the RPI, Strength of Schedule (SOS), is a simple formula — two thirds of it is the winning percentage of the teams you played, and the other third is the winning percentage of the teams those teams played. (I’m sure some calculate it with fifths or fourths or whatever but it’s still arbitrary and that’s not the point anyway). That’s pretty logical. I mean, you can see how the first board could get off by half a centimeter here, because a third of the formula is based on the transitive property, but at least we’re trying, right?

Now, remember how this is all an attempt to shatter myths? Well, in this case the big myth is the Top 25 poll, in which coaches or media just sort of observe basketball and rank the teams based on their impressions of them. It’s easy to see how this could be problematic. There are all kinds of potential biases at play, but maybe the biggest one is actually built into the system: Everything begins with a preseason poll. Thus, the polls are making a baseline assumption at the beginning of the season that we know EVERYTHING about all the teams and only adjust as we are proven wrong. Team X is the best until proven otherwise. This, of course, is absurd.

But in order to bust this myth, someone created a system (the SOS) which begins with an assumption we know NOTHING about any of these teams until the games are played. All 347 Division I basketball teams are assumed to be equal when the season begins, and only as they play each other does this begin to be sorted out. This is equally absurd. We know a whole heck of a lot about college basketball teams before the season begins. We know who the coaches are and how they have performed in the past. We have a pretty good idea who the best players are and who has them. We know who has the best home-court advantages. We know how teams performed against each other the previous season. We know how the NCAA Tournament from the previous 2,000 years has gone. We can accurately identify styles of play for a gigantic number of teams. The average college basketball fan has in his brain a huge amount of information about the sport — some quantifiable, some not — before a single game is played.

Of course, some of what we think we know is really just some kind of bias, but here’s the point: It is just as illogical to assume we know nothing about college basketball as it is to assume we know everything about college basketball.

This problem is compounded by there being an enormous number of teams and a small number of games. It’s not just that everybody doesn’t play everybody, it’s that you have to play Six Degrees of Robert Morris in order to compare Duke’s performance to New Mexico’s.

Old Dominion beating Santa Clara is the mythical butterfly that flaps its wings in China and causes an hurricane or gets Gonzaga a No. 1 seed. We are asking numbers to do things numbers aren’t capable of doing. The data are spread too thin. We’re trying to paint an entire landscape with two drops of lacquer.

And whenever I try to express this, somebody comes along and treats me like I just said the earth was flat, like I’m dragging brontosaurus bones into my cave and ranting about Aaron Craft’s grit. I’m not the idiot, here. I’m the one applying critical thought to the matter. Citing KenPom doesn’t mean you’re smart; it means he’s smart and you know how to read. Congratulations. I don’t want to hear somebody say, “It’s just math,” like I’m trying to argue 3 x 3 = 40. Multiplication only helps you if you’ve counted correctly in the first place.

I want to discuss this stuff just as intelligently as the next guy. I’m not some crusty baseball scout trying to do things the way they’ve always been done because I know change will make me obsolete. I’ve got nothing at stake, I just want to be right.

For some reason, everybody thinks you have to pick a side. You are either a Stats Guy or a Traditional Guy, and the Stats Guys get super defensive. They sound like Kip Dynamite when Napoleon doubts the effectiveness of his time machine. And the Traditional Guy gets defensive because he feels like people are telling him what he just saw didn’t really happen. And they both just start defending their sides to their own detriment, and it ends with both of them sounding like they don’t know how to think for themselves.

I think the stats are good. They’re useful tools and I think we should put them up to the X-Ray light and put our subjective observations up to the X-Ray light and if they don’t show the same thing, we should be open-minded enough to try to figure out which is wrong without just assuming anything with a decimal point in it is objective reality.

I just want to be able to point out a gap in the floor when I see one.

Elijah Johnson is not finished with you

Credit: @RobotEJ

Elijah Johnson’s basketball career is a good argument against drawing conclusions.

Before he arrived at KU, I was talking to someone who had been around him a fair bit as a high school kid, and I asked what he was like.

“He’s kind of a surly, asshole kid,” the person said.

So I’m a KU beat writer at the time, and I’m dreading this guy. We reporters do wear people down, and turn otherwise cheerful people into surly asshole kids, and it’s not like it really matters, but these players are people you’re going to be dealing with a few times a week for a few years and it’s just nice if they start off friendly.

Then I met Elijah, and he was not surly at all. He seemed introspective and emotionally dynamic, sometimes a little weird. Those traits can make a person seem rather like an a-hole at times, but I didn’t perceive him as generally selfish, condescending, mean or any of the common symptoms of an a-hole. I could be wrong, obviously — it’s not like we were friends. But that’s the way it seemed to me.

I don’t mean to imply Elijah was some kind of darling. He could get … dark … sometimes. He either can’t fake it, or has no interest in doing so. And he’s one of those people who is often either giddy or brooding. At one point early in his career he made it pretty clear he thought he was better than Tyshawn Taylor (and he might not have been wrong), and yet other times he was Mr. Team Player. One time, after a game at Oklahoma, he came out for postgame interviews and seemed downright loopy. Those of us who were there talked about it. Had he gotten a concussion? Was he on some kind of medication? We never found out and, again, it’s not like it really matters. It’s just that right when you think you’re ready to draw a conclusion about Elijah Johnson, you find out you’re not.

Straight out of the capital of Nowhere, he scored 39 points Monday night in an overtime win at Iowa State, which was the most anybody at KU had scored since Paul Pierce. His performance was heroic and historic and yet the first thing he had to do after it was all over was apologize for doing a pointless uncontested dunk as time expired.

“I shouldn’t have dunked that ball,” he said. “I got caught up in the moment.”

This is a guy who in a blowout loss at Kansas State dunked on somebody and then got  tech’ed up for taunting on the way up the floor. And Monday wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of using the dunk shot as a weapon of mass insult, either. So I don’t know, maybe this guy is an a-hole after all. Or maybe he’s not because he does seem genuinely contrite when he apologizes for this stuff. This stuff he keeps having to apologize for.

His play has been no easier to define. As a recruit he was described as a ball-dominating slasher who’d go chucking at a moment’s notice. His first two years at KU he was a ball-mover and a defender and for quite a while he had this confusingly great assist-to-turnover ratio and an equally surprising percentage on 3-pointers. It looked like one of the coaches had told him “If you want to play, you have to not turn it over and shoot only when you’re wide open and in rhythm” and he followed those orders to within the strictest possible tolerance.

He often explains things with that kind of simplicity, anyway. He did it again Monday, when he attributed his performance to a conversation between himself and coach Bill Self. He did not reveal any details of this conversation, nor did he even bother to characterize its nature, but he assured the audience that he and Self had shared some 39-point words with each other.

Beyond the simplicity of that story, I don’t have any reason to doubt it. It does sound plausible, especially for a guy who seems to be so emotionally absorbent. And I’m sure he and Self did have a conversation and I’m sure Self’s goal was to coax his player into the proper mindspace. I think most of us can identify with just needing to hear somebody say something, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you believe they’re being sincere.

But there are other times. It wasn’t three weeks ago that Johnson looked like he was done — doner than a diner steak, doner than Dane Cook, doner than the dishes in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. There’s no point in getting into the statistics, but Johnson could not make a shot and seemed to have blown a gasket in whatever mechanism controls dribbling too. It looked sad, not because a basketball player wasn’t playing well, but because a person appeared to have lost his confidence, which is one of the  most heartbreaking disasters of the human mind.

We call these things “slumps” or “funks” and those are terms that say, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” I did not think Johnson was in a funk; I thought he was broken.

But, no,  he was just in a funk.

What he did Monday in Ames was technically legendary. Years from now, KU fans will still sometimes talk about the time Elijah Johnson scored 39 at Iowa State. But this one feels different, because most legendary performances are made by legendary players and I feel quite strongly that Elijah Johnson is not a legendary player.

But you don’t want to speak too soon.

What ‘God made a farmer’ did and didn’t say

I think it’s important I disclose this right up top: I am not a farmer and never have been, although my dad grew up on a farm and I lived on a farm for the first five years of my life. I grew up in a rural part of Kansas. I now live in Houston, Texas.

Ever been in church and felt like the pastor was speaking directly to you? That’s what it feels like when I watch commercials made by the Chrysler Corporation these days.

It started with that Eminem spot for Chrysler, which I’m sure you all remember. The motif was that of a comeback, specifically for the City of Detroit, for the American auto maker and, to an extent, American manufacturing at large. Eminem narrated it, and the instrumentals for “Lose Yourself” played in the background. I got chills the first time I saw it.

The second was the spot in which Dodge (successfully) expressed what you might call “The American Spirit” using muscle car and Revolutionary War imagery. Chills again.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another ad campaign that stirs the soul the way this one does. It makes me feel like Dodge is saying so many things I would like to say about cars and America, and it’s obvious I am not the only one. These commercials wormed into parts of the American psyche I think a lot of us have let sit off to the side. It was like our psyche was a thick soup that had filmed over on the top, and this Dodge campaign was a big wooden spoon that mixed it all up again and turned on the heat.

For some of us, anyway.

Last night Chrysler dropped another one that made me take a couple deep shaky breaths. God Made a Farmer was the idea. It used an old speech by Paul Harvey, whose voice you know if you ever listened to an AM station in the Midwest and heard someone say “And that’s the rest of the story.”

That commercial summoned all sorts of feelings for me, almost all of which I was happy to feel. But a lot of people disagreed. More people disliked this ad than disliked the Eminem or Challenger spots, it seems, and I think it’s informative to explore the reasons why.

The first kind of person who didn’t like the spot is someone who thinks farmers are plain and corny and backward and stupid. This is someone who thinks he’s better than a farmer because he wears ironed pants to work and voted for Obama. This person is a bigot just like any other kind of bigot and doesn’t deserve to be listened to.

Some more open-minded people have no issue with farmers or the celebration of their craft, but don’t like it when people say God created things. They also may have felt it sounded a bit like Paul Harvey was delivering a sermon designed to make them feel guilty for not being a farmer, and found that to be off putting. This wasn’t my reaction, but I get it.

Still others enjoyed everything about the spot, right up until the end, when all these wonderful words and beautiful imagery about farmers was spoiled by a cheesy tag line — “To the farmer in all of us.” — and a cynical attempt to hock Rams, even though the connection between the Ram and farming is only sort of meaningful.

I experienced that same icky twinge right at the end, which was curious because I hadn’t felt that way at the end of the Eminem or Challenger commercials, even though Chrysler was doing the same thing in all three — stirring the soul with patriotic and nostalgic ideas and connecting them to an expensive machine.

But here’s why that happened: The Eminem commercial was an attempt to sell a car, but can you even remember what the car was? I think it might have been the Chrysler 300, but it hardly mattered. Chrysler wasn’t selling a car with that ad, it was selling American Cars or, more broadly, American Manufacturing. It was trying to inspire belief that American cars, and Detroit, would again be what they once where. And this is important. It is important that America makes good things, and it is important that Americans believe America makes good things, and Detroit is such a perfect metaphor for the whole thing.

Chrysler had to stretch a little further with the Dodge Challenger commercial, but if you know anything about the muscle car era, you can appreciate the connection. The original Challenger (after which the new one is styled) was the product of one of the most important periods in American history. The years between World War II and the election of Jimmy Carter were without question the golden age in the American auto industry. Nobody in the world made cars like Americans did. They were big and fast and beautiful. They had huge chrome bumpers and fins that reminded you of spacecraft, which was because we were literally sending people into outer space at the time. As the 50s and 60s moved toward the 70s the designs got a little sexier and a little less regal. The engines got bigger. From 1970-74, Dodge made the Challenger, and what a name for a car built at that time, on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam.

To connect the new incarnation of the Challenger — released in 2008, by the way — to the genesis of the United States was a mouthful, but if you understood what a muscle car really was, it was one you could swallow.

The Ram has no such associations. We associate farmers with pickup trucks, but the pickup truck does not register with me as being more culturally important than any other kind of implement. Sometimes people drive trucks as an expression of personal style, the same way some people wear cowboy hats. But the real reason the cowboy hat exists is to keep the sun off your neck, and the real reason pickup trucks exist is so you can throw stuff in the bed. These things are iconic, but they’re iconic because they’re ubiquitous, and they’re ubiquitous because they’re necessary.

In short, there is not a farmer in all of us.

That tagline undermined everything Paul Harvey said. It took two minutes to build it, and two seconds to destroy it. The whole point of the commercial was that farmers are special, and then it swoops in at the end to tell us that we can be a farmer just by buying a Ram? What’s the message here?

I don’t mind that Chrysler was trying to sell something. You’re watching the Super Bowl — you know somebody is trying to sell you something every second you’re watching .I think if not for that tagline, the commercial would have been perfect. Just show the Ram at the end and don’t say a word. Paul Harvey said everything that needed to be said.

But if you rolled your eyes because you thought Paul Harvey was stretching the truth a little bit, then you obviously don’t know any farmers.

College Basketball Greats of the Past: Steve Wojciechowski

The second entry in an ongoing series. 

 

“Wojo is hurt.”

Wojo needed to be hurt there. Because in order for Wojo to stand up and clap and show Inspirational Leadership, he first needed to be twisted up like a pipe cleaner by Jamaal Magloire. It’s the only way this meant anything.

I doubt Steve Wojciechowski invented this brand of college basketball player, but he certainly helped its popularity. Aaron Craft is fives times more famous than he ought to be, and he should send Steve Wojciechowski a iTunes gift card to thank him for it.

It wasn’t that Wojo was a bad player … Actually, yes it was. Steve Wojciechowski was a bad player. He shot 39 percent from the floor. He averaged 6.7 points and 4.6 assists as a senior. He was the point guard of the worst Duke team of the Mike Krzyzewski era, the 1994-95 group that lost 18 games and went 2-14 in ACC play.

But here was the thing: Krzyzewski got sick that year, and had to sit out most of the season. This was actually good for Steve Wojciechowski’s legacy in the same way it was good for him that Jamaal Magloire tried to rip off his arm. Because in the midst of all that adversity, Wojciechowski’s floor-slapping and floorburn collecting turned him into a mascot. He was this plucky, never-say-die freshman who wasn’t very big and wasn’t much of a player but Played The Game The Right Way. Ordinarily, Duke’s failures would have been blamed on the Blue Devils’ lack of an ACC-caliber point guard — and Duke would have failed that year regardless — but Krzyzewski’s absence washed all that away. It allowed Duke to be an underdog, and nobody played the underdog better than Steve Wojciechowski.

It allowed him to become Wojo.

And we need Wojo for college basketball to seem important. The players in the NBA are way, way better. The level of basketball played in the NBA is superior to the college game to a degree that is comical. Everybody intuitively knows this, even if they don’t like the NBA.  What is important, then, for college basketball fans, is a sense of connection with the players. It’s a feeling that Wojo and I chose the same school and went to the same classes and drank at the same bars and, most importantly, Wojo cares as much as I do and we are in this together. 

Therefore, it is helpful if it seems like your team’s success is largely the result of how much it cares about your school and, by extension, you. When Wojo slaps the floor, he’s not doing it for any practical reason, he’s doing it to communicate to you, the fan, that he is in this foxhole with you, and you will stand and cheer the floor-slapper because, dammit, he might not be able to beat anybody off the dribble but at least you know that makes him as sad as it makes you.

And so we salute you, Steve Wojciechowski, for teaching us that college basketball players aren’t all that good, which is kind of the point.

College Basketball Greats of the Past: T.J. Pugh

Today I begin a blog series which I’m calling “College Basketball Greats of the Past.” Its purpose is not to celebrate those still-famous players that nobody could ever forget like Paul Pierce or J.J. Redick. It’s to celebrate those players that might be forgotten, players whose contributions at the time might have seemed historically insignificant. In other words, the players that make college basketball’s world go ’round.

He’s Dr. T.J. Pugh now, I think. But at the time he was just “Puuuuuuuuuuugh.” He was one of those guys who made it sound like he was getting booed by his own fans, but not in the way that happened to J.R. Giddens.

T.J. Pugh was not a particularly good player. But he wasn’t bad, either. He was about as nondescript as a basketball player can be. He was 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, which is the most average possible size for a collegiate power forward. He was from Omaha, Nebraska, which is the most average city in the Midwest. His senior year, he averaged 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds. He shot just under 50 percent from the field and just under 60 percent from the free-throw line. He blocked half a shot per game.

He was adequate.

This being the late 90s, he wore a baggy t-shirt under his uniform. He was not muscular, but you wouldn’t describe him as “lithe” either. I don’t think athletic training was the same then as it is now. T.J. Pugh looked kind of like he’d been spotted shuffling his feet along some broken Omaha sidewalk on the way to a Little Ceasar’s when Roy Williams drove by and asked him if he’d ever played basketball.

I don’t know how stridently Pugh had been recruited. Recruiting information is pretty scarce if you’re going back before about 2003. I’m sure Creighton offered. Probably Nebraska too. There certainly was never a sense of, “Oh man, did you hear about this kid from Omaha KU got?”

And in this way, T.J. Pugh represented everything Kansas basketball has been since at the latest 1989. You hear TV analysts say all the time that KU is just loaded up with McDonald’s All-Americans, but that has almost never been true over the last 20 years. Kansas usually has one or two, and that’s it. Sometimes more, but that’s rare. Whether the coach was Williams or Bill Self, this has been the case.

So there is always room for a T.J. Pugh not just on the roster, but in the rotation. It’s become a real legacy by now. Pugh passed the torch to Bret Ballard, who passed it to Christian Moody, who passed it to Brady Morningstar.

These are players to whom nothing was given, and from whom nothing was expected.

But here is what happens: A couple of years go by, and NBA player or two comes through the program, and suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have enough great players — shot-makers, drivers, etc. — but what you could really use out there is a guy who knows where to go and how to set a good screen and how to reverse the ball to the third side and will slide his feet on defense and doesn’t think he was born to be the hero.

And that’s when you take out C.J. Giles and put in Christian Moody, or you start Brady Morningstar instead of Josh Selby.

That was T.J. Pugh. As a senior, he was better than Lester Earl and (probably) drove a much crappier car. Was he great?

Well, not by your standard definition.

 

Assists aren’t all that, man

Last night on Twitter, people had an epileptic seizure over Flip Pressey’s assist total. The Missouri point guard had 19 assists to go with 19 points in Missouri’s loss to UCLA. It was a remarkable performance. I watched it on the DVR after the fact, and Pressey was spectacular. He might be the best point guard in the country. 

So what I’m about to say is not a reflection of my opinion of Flip Pressey, he just happens to have created the most newsworthy anecdote for this philosophical screed I am about to dump on your head.

Ready?

All you have to do in order to get an assist is throw the ball to someone else. It is the most basic possible action in basketball. It is even more basic than dribbling, in fact, because dribbling was not even allowed when basketball was first invented. At the essence of the game, an offensive player has but two options:

1) Shoot. 

2) Pass. 

Anything else done in basketball — dribbling, rebounding, etc. — is either done in service of (or reaction to) one of those two actions. 

So if your combination circumstance and skill does not allow you to score yourself, you pass it to somebody else who can. That’s pretty much the game. And it’s why the basketball assist is the most overrated sports statistic this side of the RBI. 

This is not to say it is easy to accumulate a great number of assists, necessarily. Anybody who gets more than about 10 assists in a basketball game is clearly adept at getting the ball to advantageous positions on the floor. But he also almost certainly spends the vast majority of the game with the ball in his hands, which may or may not be a good thing. I bet there is a player on every Top 25 team who could average eight assists per game if for some reason his coach told him “I want you to average eight assists per game.”

You have certainly heard the story about Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt, of course, was at the time the most unstoppable force in the history of sports. But because he scored so much and his teams could never win the championship, Wilt started hearing a lot about how he wasn’t a team player. So in 1967-68, Wilt decided to lead the NBA in assists, and that’s then he did. This would change everything, Wilt thought.

Now, this says a lot about Wilt Chamberlain, mainly that in addition to be utterly unguardable he was sadly unable to understand the way public perception works. But it also proves a couple things about the assist, which are that (1) it is not necessarily a selfless act, and (2) a player with the ball in his hands a lot can easily manipulate his assist total.

Any basketball fan can recall a player who seemed to pursue assists for impure reasons. Julian Wright comes to mind for me. I think Julian was probably a good teammate, but he was constantly trying to throw passes when shooting would have been the more efficient and more certain way of scoring the points. A fair number of those passes ended up stuck in a tuba. 

Another reason the assist is a bad statistic is that it fails to account for approximately 90 percent of the reason a basket is scored. The quality of the screen set, the rotation of the defense, the effectiveness of the cut, the position of the other offensive players, and so on. 

Basketball is not a good sport for statistical analysis, because most basketball events lose their meaning when isolated from their context. And no basketball statistic means less than the assist.