90s Week: NBA Jam

Any time a video game developer feels an urge to create a game like, “NFL Head Coach,” he should first flick himself in the balls with a ruler, then play NBA Jam for 10 minutes.

He would then re-realize the most basic, fundamental, yet easily forgotten rule of games — they should be fun to play.

NBA Jam was fun to play.

Being fun to play was, of course,  the only thing NBA Jam was. It was intentionally absurd. Guys could jump so high they flew out of the screen. That was awesome. If you made three shots in a row, you were “on fire,” and your shots had flames coming off them. That was awesome. There were no fouls.  Again, awesome. If you entered the correct codes, you could assemble a team of Al Gore and George Clinton, which was off-the-charts awesome.

Money from the corner.

Money from the corner.

Like all video games from the 90s, there were some funny quirks. For example, Mitch Richmond was a total Zeus in that game. Now, Richmond was a fine player. Won the All-Star game MVP once. Great shooter. But on NBA Jam, he was Scottie Pippen’s equal.

Which brings up the NBA Jam rosters. They would be a trip down memory lane if these were real, 12-man rosters, anyway, but that these were two-man teams makes it extra hilarious to look back at the guys regarded as the two best players on their teams in 1993.

Minnesota — Christian Laettner and Chuck Person.

Dallas — Derek Harper and Jim Jackson.

Houston — Hakeem Olajuwon and Vernon Maxwell.

Chicago — Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant*

*Obviously, this should have been Michael Jordan, but Jordan wasn’t in video games because securing the license to his likeness was too expensive. To my knowledge, the last game in which Jordan appeared as himself was in “Bulls vs. Blazers and the NBA Playoffs”, which was stupendously awful.

Usually the games tried to creatively include Jordan. For example, early in the NBA Live series, a random player nobody knew would show up on the Bulls’ roster. If you were inclined, you could just “create” Jordan yourself, and replace this throwaway player with your created Jordan. Not only was this a pain in the butt, but, because Jordan was a myth, it felt stupid to go in there and ask yourself to rate Jordan’s skills on a 50-100 scale. Nobody wanted to say to their digital MJ, “You’re passing is really only about a 79 and you can’t jump like you used to.”

Point is, can you imagine this happening today? Imagine if you bought NBA Live 2k9, and LeBron wasn’t on the game. You’d be outraged. The game companies and the NBA would do whatever was necessary to get LeBron in the game, because it’s too important as a marketing tool. In the early 90s, nobody understood this.

Another point of intrigue about NBA Jam is that it really wasn’t much different than the other SNES/Sega Geneis sensation, Mortal Kombat. Both were, at their essence, cartoonish fighting games. NBA Jam had no rules (except goaltending), no teamwork and a rapid pace, which made each game seem more like a street fight than a basketball game. And because both games moved so quickly, they functioned well for the kind of tournaments you’d have at a sleepover. The only difference was that in NBA Jam, you did flipping dunks whle consumed by flame and in Mortal Kombat, you ripped out your enemy’s spine.

As all gimmicks do, NBA Jam tried to resell us what was essentially the same game with NBA Jam Tournament Edition*. There were some new features you could turn on and off, like six-point shots, and they updated the rosters. Some people liked this version, but I didn’t think it made the game any better. The brilliance of NBA Jam was its simplicity, which the new features undermined, I thought.

*In early versions of the Tournament Edition, according to Wikipedia, you could enter codes to play as characters from Mortal Kombat. The NBA soon vetoed this, not wanting to be associated with ripping out people’s spines.

More so than with any other form of entertainment, video games have to be evaulated in context. Nobody would argue that NBA Jam is a technically better game than almost anything available today. The graphics are bad and the controls are jerky and there really are no features.

Not many people would even argue that NBA Jam is better than NBA Live 95, which pretty much changed basketball video games for good. But NBA Jam was the first basketball game that was any fun to play.

And that’s the point.

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90s Week: Rap

The two most delicate musical genres on earth are these:

1) Rap

2) Christian rock

So far as I can tell, these are the only two genres that seek to satisfy two separate and distinct, if not diametrically opposed, interests. Rap music is made primarily by (previously) poor, black people, primarily about poor, black people. Yet its greatest audience is middle class white people. Without them, rap is a commercial failure, and therefore something all the “hipster” kids would absolutely freaking love.

Bitches aint shit was such an amazing record, man. You totally wouldnt get it, though.

"'Bitches ain't shit'" was such an amazing record, man. You totally wouldn't get it, though."

Christian rock faces a similar quandary. It has two goals, 1) to worship God, and 2) to rock your face off. Which goal gets priority depends on the band, but either way, the ultimate problem is that the music just doesn’t make any sense. The best Christian bands are the ones that write silly songs — the entire MxPx catalogue, for example — that aren’t overtly Christian, but aren’t about sex, either, so what’s the point? Essentially, the only decent Christian rock is really just what punk rock would have sounded like, lyrically, if it had existed in the 1950s.

Rap’s problem was much easier to reconcile when it became obvious that white kids were actually pretty curious about life in the ghettos. And its importance was that this was stuff people needed to hear, whether they wanted to or not.

It all started in 1988, when N.W.A. released “Straight Outta Compton,” which at the time was the most terrifying thing recorded and capitalized on since the Zapruder film.

It was a subtle album:

When I’m called off I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off

And

A young nigga on a warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dyin’ in LA

At that point, it became official. “Straight Outta Compton” could never be topped on the scale of public outrage, proving the great irony that all publicity is good publicity, especially if that publicity involves the F.B.I. and the Secret Service sending letters to your record company.

Nobody wanted to hear about the ghettos. It was too uncomfortable, especially to the government, which through the housing projects and the intentional distribution of crack cocaine*, was largely responsible for producing them.

*Author speculation.

The album got  no radio play, N.W.A. made no major tours, and “Straight Outta Compton” went double platinum.

This was the catalyst for the golden age of rap, but the age didn’t really begin until 1992, when former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre unleashed “The Chronic,” which is still widely regarded as one of the five or so best rap albums ever. This age died in 2003, when Nelly won a Grammy for “Hot in Herre.”

Wanted: For the murder of hip hop.

Wanted: For the murder of hip hop.

But what came in between “The Chronic” and “Hot in Herre” had to be — and I’m biased here, because I love the genre — as good a 10-year period as any genre has experienced in music history. I would think, relatively speaking, it was as good as the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s were for rock & roll.

Here’s what we got:

  • “The Chronic,” Dr. Dre  (1992) — Introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg.
  • Doggystyle, Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993) — “Gin and Juice” and “What’s My Name?” are two of the most recognizable songs of the 1990s.
  • “Ready to Die,” Nororious B.I.G. (1993) — Top to bottom, the best rap album ever, in my estimation. Lyrically, only Eminem challenges it.
  • “Illmatic,” Nas (1994) — Not my style, but any rap historian will laud it.
  • “36 Chambers” The Wu-Tang Clan (1993) — Some get it, some don’t.
  • “(The Chronic) 2001,” Dr. Dre (1999) — I guarantee you know at least three songs off this album.
  • “Reasonable Doubt” Jay-Z (1996) — It’s Jay-Z.
  • “All Eyez on Me” Tupac (1996) — Broad, mature, and awesome.
  • “The Slim Shady LP,” Eminem (1999) — Often lyrically nonsensical, yet brilliant.
  • “The Marshall Mathers LP,” Eminem (2000) — Only album to ever challenge “Straight Outta Compton” on the public outrage scale.

But as we went careening toward “Hot in Herre,” things started to get complicated. With the exception of the Eminem stuff above (he is probably best evaulated as his own sub-genre), all of the music centered around the same “rags to riches” theme. Some focused on the rags (Dre), some focused on the riches (Jay), but it’s the same story over and over again. Which is fine, except that the story has to be believable.

No genre depends as heavily on the credibility of its artists to write their songs as rap does. So when people start to find out that, for example, Tupac had studied at a performing arts school in Baltimore, he starts to feel an extra burden to remind people that the stuff he’s rapping about is his own.

And when we start to hear that, well, maybe Biggie’s songs about slinging crack weren’t, technically, about him, he then feels that same compulsion to prove his credibility.

Next thing we know, they’re both murdered in an almost identical, and very public way, and the genre’s popularity explodes as life imitates art.

It didn’t happen all at once — there are still banal rap albums about thuggery flooding the shelves — but the genre started a slow turn at that point, and eventually most of the content was about sex and money, spawning the totally hilarious Cash Money Millionaires and, in turn, the most annoying phrase of the last 10 years.

Above: The Cash Money Millionaires teach us about fiscal responsibility.

Rap has mostly devolved into self parody since then. Nobody takes the street life albums seriously anymore, which is a good thing for the rappers — Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne —  who are creative enough to take the music in their own, original directions.

The music is always going to have its roots in what’s known as “the struggle,” but rappers don’t need to tell that story anymore. We’ve heard it. That’s what the 90s were about in rap — telling the world, in graphic detail, the story of life in the ghettos. It needed to be told. And it needed to be told in that unsanitary way.

In that regard, it was like the Vietnam War, which was the first war that the American people could watch, raw and uncut, unfold before their own eyes. Before then, war was all about fighting the good fight, shown in blatantly propagandistic news reels. People knew that men died, but they imagined it happening cleanly and righteously, not by bleeding to death with no legs. The coverage of Vietnam made it real, and horrifying.

And that’s what gangster rap for the inner city. It was the 90s, man, and it was awesome.

90s Week: Michael Jordan

This is going to be problematic, because I think the mere act of writing about Michael Jordan is plagiarism. What can possibly be written about MJ that hasn’t been written before?

This is the challenge.

There will never be another Michael Jordan. And by that I don’t mean that there will never be another player as great at Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant might be as great. LeBron James might be, too. But I don’t even care to argue about that. What difference does it make?

What I mean is this: Jordan was the last superstar athlete to enjoy a reverent, genteel media environment. His career largely predated the Internet, camera phones and even, to a some degree, sports talk radio.

Michael Jordan, as we know him, is a myth.


Whether this is good or bad depends on whether or not sports are important. If they are, then it’s important that we have myths like Jordan. If our professional athletes are hosers just like us, then who cares? If these are just tall men making widgets, then does anybody really care that Karl Malone missed and Jordan hit? Of course not.

This should have been the last shot of his career.

But if these people are something more than hosers just like us, if we can believe that there is some manner of good and evil at play, or that there is something inherent in certain athletes that allows them to do heroic things, and if we can believe that this is metaphorical to life, then we can believe that we, too, might have something inherent within us that would allow us to do heroic things. Perhaps not on the basketball court, but maybe in a courtroom or a singles bar or in World of Warcraft.


If sports are important, this is the reason why. They aren’t important the way that government is important. We don’t need our politicians to be mythical, because there is too much at stake. We need them to be real and accountable. We need them to be dispensable.

With athletes, it’s different. We need the generational Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi and Michael Jordan to cling to. We need them to endure. We need a superhero.

I don’t know that it matters to me, now. But as a kid, I needed the Michael Jordan myth. I needed to believe that he was super. I needed him to be a hero. Because if Michael Jordan wasn’t heroic, then who really was? And what was the point of life? If Michael Jordan wasn’t good and right and true, then basketball wasn’t good and right and true, and I was a fool for liking it.

I’m not sure if the Jordan Myth would have happened if his career had begun 20 years later. It might be possible to avoid the New Media pitfalls, but it’s unlikely. Tom Brady is about as protected as a professional athlete can be, playing for the most tight-lipped organization in professional sports and enjoying a level of hero worship that is rare anymore, but even the details of his historic run with the supermodels easily became a matter of public consumption.

Rape charge notwithstanding, Kobe Bryant’s image has been well-crafted, too, but other NBA players have been quoted (albeit anonymously) as saying he’s a “douchebag.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think this would have happened in 1995. I don’t think any NBA writer would have felt compelled to find out whether Michael Jordan was a douchebag, and even if he did, I don’t think he would have used an anonymous quote saying as much in some kind of slash piece. What would be the benefit? What difference did it make? He was still awesome. Even Jordan’s gambling problem went down historically as an anecdote for his competitiveness. The worst thing anybody ever really said about Jordan was that he was hyper-competitive. See, even his flaws were awesome.

As recently as the late 90s, beat writers were still routinely traveling with the teams they covered, on the team plane. These guys all have great stories from these trips, but there was a mutual understanding that what happened in private stayed in private. And since in those days there were really only  one or two or four writers, they effectively policed themselves.

But in the decade since, the proliferation of new media outlets has turned every little morsel of information into a story as they grapple for original content. Most newspapers still don’t bother with things like Tom Brady’s mistresses, but the bloggers and the celebrity TV shows and talk radio guys have a heyday with it. Worse, this kind of information is more often available than ever because, as Michael Phelps, Matt Leinart, Ben Roethlisberger and countless others have found out, anybody with a cell phone camera is a papparazzo.

The shirt is priceless.

The shirt is priceless.

There is something sad about this, even though as a journalist, I always root for the humanization of athletes. There is entirely too much hero worship of them, especially, I think, at the college level, where fans always believe their guys are the good guys. This causes a lot of problems. When a running back sexually assaults a girl at a party, sometimes it’s because he knows he can. In the back of his mind, he knows there will be 100,000 voices calling the girl a gold digger and cheering his name on Saturday.

But Jordan was different. He wasn’t a running back at State U. He was bigger than that, he was unreal, which was what we needed him to be.

90s Week: Boy bands

Hey, were just five guys of way different ages from five difference backgrounds and five different parts of the country who became really good buddies and, like, totally wrote all these songs and got famous. Oh, and Lance is totally not gay.

"Hey, we're just five guys of way different ages from five different backgrounds and five different parts of the country who became really good buddies and, like, totally wrote all these songs and got sickeningly famous. Oh, and Lance is totally not gay."

Musically, the 1990s were about three things:

1) Grunge (read: Kobain).

2) G-funk rap (read: Dre).

3) Boy bands (read: Lou Pearlman)

Pearlman was the manager and “creator” of N’Sync (please watch this) and the Backstreet Boys. According to Pearlman’s wikipedia entry, he “perpetrated one of the biggest and longest running Ponzi schemes in American history.” Also, he bilked investors out of millions by “investing” their money in a company that didn’t, you know, actually exist*.

*This false company, by the way, was a freaking airline. How do you get swindled on that? All you have to do is try to book a flight on Trans Continental Airlines and you’ll soon realize there is no Trans Continental Airlines.

It’s debatable whether this, or the Backstreet Boys, was the bigger crime.

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to mention that these bands didn’t totally suck. With the exception of Joey Fatone* and the tall guy in Backstreet, these guys could really sing (‘Nsync’s Christmas album is — and I’m not kidding here — the best Christmas album I’ve ever heard).

*What was Joey Fatone’s contribution to ‘Nsync, anyway? No girl I ever heard of thought he was good looking. He wasn’t a good singer. My sisters, 12 and 10 years old, would routinely lampoon his dancing. It’s like they kept him around just to rope in the New Jersey/Long Island demographic. It was kind of like McCain picking Sarah Palin for VP to get the women’s vote, except that it wasn’t like that at all.

The only megastar to come out of the Boy Band Era has been Justin Timberlake, who has had the greatest career possible for a Mouseketeer. He’s the ultimate. Think about this.

  • At age, like, 14, he’s an international sensation, irrefutably the most desired member of the most desired group in the world.
  • In 1999, at age 18, he starts dating the most desirable woman in the world, Britney Spears, when she was in her absolute prime.
  • In 2002, just before Britney goes crazy, she (probably) cheats on him, giving him a get out of jail free card, which he cashes in immediately. He promptly writes “Cry me a River,” one of the most devastating revenge songs of all time, totally re-inventing himself with an R&B album that is universally loved.
  • From 2002-2009, becomes one of the top three or four R&B artists in the world, accepted by black people as one of their own and generally compared favorably to Usher, the most popular R&B singer of his generation.
  • Meanwhile, Britney begins dating perhaps the world’s most unlikable hanger-on, Kevin Federline, even bearing his children, then getting fat, shaving her head and checking in and out of various mental facilities in a downward spiral that bottomed out with comedians making jokes about her vagina.

Can we say round one goes to Timberlake?

The ironic problem for the rest of the boy-banders was that their audience — preteen to high school girls — doesn’t actually give a rip whether they can sing or not. Some scientists maintain that adolescent girls actually have worse taste in music than the Germans. Others disagree, saying that’s like saying something is colder than absolute zero. But you get the point. As we’ve seen in the 2000s, having actual talent is not a prerequisite for popularity as a musician.

Its more about wearing weird hats and being black.

It's more about wearing weird hats and being black.

The boy band appeal was mainly, as almost everything is, about sex. The interesting thing is that boy bands became wildly popular and girl bands never really caught on, even though the basic appeal should be the same, right?

The difference is in the way men and women (boys and girls) feel attraction. It is almost impossible to get any group of women to agree on which man in a particular context (the entire world, for example) is the most attractive. Their feelings of attraction are subject to so many different factors — personality, mannerism, social background, women they’ve been linked to — that you can’t have just one guy and expect broad appeal.

The reason girl groups generally don’t succeed is that men base their attraction — at least as far as people they’ll never meet is concerned — on almost purely visual information. And this isn’t nearly as subjective as you might think, meaning that men will almost always universally agree on which member of, say, Destiny’s Child, is most attractive, and ignore the rest.

Ask 10 different girls who the best-looking boy in their school is, and you’re probably getting six or seven different answers with huge discrepancies in those opinions (a boy one girl thinks is ridiculously good looking another will describe as “gross”). Ask 10 boys about the girls, and you’re probably getting two or three different answers, but even among those three, there will be a general agreement that “it’s close.”

So your best bet when concocting a boy band is to cover all your bases, even if one of those bases is the New Jersey demographic.

Honestly. Really?

Honestly?

This is why 98 Degrees was generally a failure. The other two hosers were so out of place that nobody thought Nick Lachey wasn’t the best-looking guy in the band.

Well, that, and their being a blatant attempt to cash in on a hot genre, which, regardless of the genre, usually works well enough to sell one mediocre album (read: “G Funk Classics, Vol. 1: Ghetto Preacher,” Nate Dogg) but not two (read: “G Funk Classics. Vol. 1 & 2,” Nate Dogg).

And it is at this point that the whole thing comes back around to Pearlman, the first guy to craft a reality show about the making of a band that nobody would ever like. He called this show, “Making the Band.”

They made the band.

They made the band, and also crappy music. (Guy in the middle: "I can't believe they're making me wear this.")

This show, producing the boy band O-Town, which would ultimately murder the boy band genre, was interesting at the time because our society wasn’t used to reality television yet, so we thought that the stuff that happened on the show was, like, totally organic and that the ultimate goal of the show was to actually create a band.

Now we know that the “Making the Band” shows have virtually nothing to do with actually composing  a band. The band is little more than a theme around which the producers can assemble crazy people and have them tear their each other’s clothes off and throw up on the carpet. Other such themes are “love,” “learning manners” and “having sex with Bret Michaels.” If they accidentally sell a few records at the end, even better.

Once we realized that nobody actually wanted to listen to O-Town’s music, the jig was up with the boy band genre. It became obvious that O-Town and ‘Nsync were just different flavors of Lou Pearlman’s ball sweat. And it was all over, conveniently, in the year 2000.

90s Week: Let’s begin with ‘Home Improvement’

I have decided that for the next week, I will devote this blog to the celebration of things from the 1990s that were awesome.

If, like me, you were born in the 1980s, you undoubtedly experience the most nostalgia for the 1990s, when you were more cognizant. Back then, our Iraq wars were over before you could order Domino’s, our rap music wasn’t self-parody (except for Vanilla Ice, who was awesome in his own special way), and our baseball players could hit 600-foot home runs while we’d all go, “Are the balls made of rubber, now, or something? Surely that’s it.”

I want to begin with “Home Improvement,” a Tim Allen TV show which was awesome.

Tim Taylor, as you’ll recall, is an American man’s man living in an increasingly un-American, unmanly world. This conflict between American manly man and his unmanly environment is pretty much the central theme of every show. Antagonists come in the form of Jill Taylor, Tim’s wife, a housewife who aspires to be a lesbian (well, or just a feminist), his sons, Brad, Randy and Mark, who are constant sources of disappointment for Tim, from Randy wanting to be a (pansy) journalist, to Mark wearing black eye-liner to Brad playing soccer.

Distinctly un-American

Distinctly un-American

Tim subscribes to this postwar American ideal that bigger is always better, that winning means going the fastest, being the loudest, being the biggest, baddest mofo on the block. Frankly, I don’t know how he could be more right.

*Interestingly, this same kind of ideal is swiffering through China as we speak. It tends to be tied to industrial revolutions. And smoking.

Tim’s life is almost gratifying, but ultimately is a disappointment (and not just because he lives in Detroit).  He has three boys, but they’re all pansies. He has a devoted wife, but she wants to be a lesbian*. He hosts a cable tool show, but the show’s popularity is based on Tim’s buffoonery, not his knowledge of tools. He makes lots of jokes at the expense of his assistant, Al Boreland, but ultimately the joke is on Tim.

*In actual life, the actress who played Jill, Patricia Richardson, thought she should be paid as much per episode as Tim was. This is obviously ridiculous, but she knew that the show wouldn’t make any sense if she was replaced by a new Jill, so she leveraged the show against itself , basically ending the series, which was the most successful thing any of them ever did. Good work, there, Pat.

The stabilizing force in Tim’s life is his neighbor, Wilson Wilson, a philosopher, psychologist, practitioner of eastern medicine and probably the creepiest guy ever to appear in a sitcom. Wilson has traveled the world, smoked the finest peyote, read all the great books in their native tongues. He’s the persona that European men use to convince American girls studying abroad to sleep with them.

It is literally easier to do this than to not do it.

"It is literally easier to do this than to not do it."

Because of his vast cultural repetoire and experience banging American tourists in Prague, Wilson always has the solution to simple-minded Tim’s problems. Wilson is kind of like the United Nations to Tim’s United States.

Totally switching gears, it is also important to mention that this show spawned two stars who have probably made more money  in poster sales than actual acting. I’m talking, obviously, about Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Pamela Anderson.

JTT was more the pre-teen girl’s locker poster and Anderson was more the “back room at your local mechanic” poster, but you know what I mean.

Before she became gross.

Before she became gross.

Home Improvement would be the highlight of his career

"Home Improvement" would be the highlight of his career

Within the realm of 1990s pop culture, there aren’t many more significant beginnings than Pamela Anderson’s. We’re talking about the sex symbol of the 1990s, here, even though Debbie Dunning, who replaced Anderson, was obviously more attractive.

Blondes who have sex on camera with 1980s rockers have more fun.

Blondes who have sex on camera with 1980s rockers have more fun.

Anderson held that distinction probably right up until Britney Spears dressed up as a Catholic school girl and begged to be “hit” in 1998. And, to be fair, who can compete with that?

Still, that’s a solid seven-year run, enough to be the definitive female sex symbol of the decade (for the girls, who was the male sex symbol of the 90s? I honestly have no idea.) than began in 1991 on “Home Improvement.”

Fourteen years later, she was wearing a sheer top and getting roasted by Courtney Love on national television, so the shelf life of a female sex symbol’s legitimacy is obviously not all that long, at least not when said sex symbol has no discernable talent.

But we’re not talking about 2005, here. This is about the 1990s, and Home Improvement was awesome.

I get hit on by a gay or insane guy

I think most men are generally terrible at hitting on girls, and I think this is primarily because most men have so little experience being hit on.

It’s probably not actually as complicated as it seems. If more guys would just think to themselves, “What if somebody said this exact same thing to me in this exact same context?” they’d save themselves a lot of stupid attempts.

I arrived at this conclusion shortly after an encounter at the gym in which I may or may not have been hit on by a guy who may or may not have been gay. It’s possible this guy was just totally insane. Either way, it felt like I was getting hit on by a gay guy, and that’s all that matters.

Awkward sexual advances are for pacifists.

Let me begin by telling you that the first thing this guy did was walk into the weight room and start mimicking the sound of a siren with his mouth. It sounded something like a tornado siren. He thought this was hilarious. He walked up to a group of mostly espanol-speaking teenagers and, without any introduction, began making the siren noise, more or less, in their faces. He then motioned for them to watch him walk into the basketball gym, where he walked behind a stairwell and performed the noise, briefly confusing everyone in the building.

“That guy is freaking crazy,” one kid said.

When he came back in, he began speaking in some foreign tongue to the espanol-speaking teenagers. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t do anything. They were utterly befuddled. This is behavior I’ve never encountered before, and not only am I probably 10 years older than these kids, I’ve been living in Lawrence for the last five years.

“You know what that is?” he asked.

Stunned, they offered no audible response.

“It’s latin,” he said. “It’s a Catholic prayer.”

Theres nothing in there about hitting on teenage mexicans.

There's nothing in there about hitting on teenage mexicans.

He went right from that to inspecting their teenage arms and abs. I’m not kidding. Squeazing and touching and looking, he compared them to his own, which were extremely flabby and attached to a face that looked like it was 40-some years old, but an excessively abused 40-something, if that makes sense. His face looked kind of like a ball of bread dough, after it’s been kneaded for a while. And fat.

“I know latin, italian, french,” he told them, loudly. “A little spanish. Espanol. Petit espanol.”

He made several remarks about the teenagers’ muscle tone, then had one of them feel his (supposedly) surgically repaired shoulder, which he had (supposedly) injured in a car accident.

Soon, the boys left. That meant it was me, him, and two 20-something girls, which he totally ignored, except to loudly mock something one of them said.

I knew he was going to say something to me. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to respond to the tornado siren or touch the shoulder. And I certainly didn’t want him to recite a prayer all in my face.

I was preparing what I would say to him. And I will say, I’m pretty good at making people feel unwanted for conversational purposes. So good, actually, that I sometimes do it accidentally, causing people I actually like to think I don’t want to talk to them.*

*Does that make me a jerk? That doesn’t seem fair, but I honestly don’t know. It’s not like I derive any pleasure from this. I don’t make people feel uninteresting just for kicks, or to make myself feel better. It’s just that I don’t like small talk, unless there is some realistic expectation that it will become something more interesting. Some people find other people necessarily interesting. I don’t. That’s all.

Not everybody has this skill. My friend, Lance, for example, cannot ever extracate himself from a bad conversation. He’s so engaging (or, perhaps, engagable), that people think he’s interested when he actually isn’t. He accidentally makes people feel like they are entertaining him (often, as I think about it right now, probably me). This is a fine skill to have. I’d probably be better at my job if I were like Lance but, alas, I’m not.

The point is, when I set out to be unapproachable, I’m usually effective. Probably 95 percent effective, I’d say, in warding off unwanted conversation.

So I pulled the bill of my hat down, kept my eyes focused on what I was doing, or the wall, and adjusted my workout so that I would not be in his vicinity.

And if he started to talk to me in latin, I was going to say this:  “Hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to talk about this.”

It’s direct. It leaves no room for misunderstanding. It’s just, “Don’t talk to me. No offense.”

But he did not talk to me in latin. And he did not make the siren noise. Instead, he hit me with this:

“Nice work with those 50s.”

I was sideswiped. What he had said to me was neither intrusive nor overtly annoying. What could I say?

“Thanks,” I muttered, not looking at him.

And then he went for it.

“Nice arms, too.”

That was it. I hurriedly finished my last set, and bolted out of there. I can’t imagine what he was going to say next, but I knew it wasn’t going to get any less weird from there.

Call me a homophobe, if you want. If you’re a woman, imagine how creeped out you’d be if a guy like that started commenting on your legs while you were doing lunges.  Now, multiply that by whatever you multiply by to allow for unwanted homosexual advances.

So I started to think about this, and I wondered how often things a lot like this must happen to women. Some random guy at the gym making some out-of-place and completely transparent compliment, then ignoring all nonverbal signals that this was a poor idea. And how often do men make the creepiest compliment possible at the weirdest possible time?

I think you can only get away with this stuff if you’re really, really ridiculously good looking, and if that’s the case, why are you complimenting women in the first place? You’ll do much better by insulting them.

So that’s my useless advice for the day.

MANswers: An insult to humanity

I’m just going to get right to it, here. “MANswers” a SpikeTV show, might be the stupidest, most intellectually insulting thing I’ve ever seen on television. Note: I’ve seen an episode of “Rock of Love.”

Watch this:

Amid the explosions and the yelling and the bad grammar, this video asks the question: How big do boobs have to be to crush a beer can? It then suggests that this is a question that has puzzled “dudes” for centuries (“dude,” apparently, is the only word that men use to describe or address other men).

I don’t know who these dudes are that have been wondering about this. I know that such a thought has never crossed my mind.  There is no reason to ponder this, because knowing how large a breast would have to be in order to crush a beer can doesn’t help you understand anything about anything else. It’s totally arbitrary. They could do 100 episodes based on this premise.

  • HOW BIG DO BOOBS HAVE TO BE TO KILL A SQUIRREL!? (Explosion!)
  • HOW BIG DO BOOBS HAVE TO BE DO BREAK A SMALL CHILD’S ARM!? (Explosion!)
  • HOW BIG DO BOOBS HAVE TO BE TO AFFECT THE GAS MILEAGE OF A FORD FUSION!? (Exploding Ford Contour!)

They’ve badly misjudged the male interest in breasts. I don’t think men are generally interested in the scientific properties of them, only in seeing them and touching them (with the occasional “real or fake?” argument thrown in). If this were a segment about how to make that happen, I think men would be a lot more interested.

The logic, here, seems to be this: Men like boobs. Men will like anything pertaining to boobs.

I like grilled chicken breasts, too, but I don’t really care how many of them it would take to sink a row boat.

And then we get this, the “Dump of Death” segment.

Now, I think we’ve all had our share of laughs over pooping. If there’s a good narrative to your story, and the central element is a dump you took, that’s OK*. But the reason we like dumping stories is because it’s a shared human experience to which everybody can relate, not because we’re actually intersted in the excrement itself, or in the process.

*Best dumping story I’ve ever heard:

A guy has to go really, really badly. It’s to the point that he’s either going to find a bathroom or crap his pants. He has lost control. So his wife pulls into a mall parking lot and the guy goes shuffling in, trying not to crap his pants on the way in.

But it’s on its way. It’s a race against time. He shuffles into the bathroom, bursts into a stall, yanks his pants down … and sees a pair of feet between his shoes.

This story is courtesy my high school buddy, James Alexander, who was not the man in question.

I’ve never wondered, Is it possible to take a crap so big you die trying to take it? And even if I had wondered that, I think I would have guessed that, although it’s possible to die while taking a dump, it probably isn’t going to be the dump itself that kills you.

I get that most business models cater to the lowest common demonimator. That’s capitalism. It’s why we have Applebee’s, the Chevy Cobalt and “According to Jim.” Even newspapers are supposedly written at an eighth-grade level. I get that.

But I think the denominator on MANswers is not common. This the lowest of the low. I think the people who watch this show are the kinds of guys who aspire to be strip club bouncers, think demolition derbies are awesome and go to Hooter’s to hit on the waitresses. Maybe these are the people who bought all those Kid Rock albums. I don’t know. I don’t know anybody who owns a Kid Rock album, but I imagine them to be the kind of person who would watch MANswers and hit on Hooter’s waitresses.

Smoking is cool again

NOTE: I don’t smoke. Nor do I want to.

In this month’s Esquire — no Klosterman, by the way. This will not stand. — I counted four photos of men smoking cigarettes for no clear reason. These were not cigarette ads. These also were not candid photos. These men are models, and one of their accessories was a burning cigarette.

It looks awesome.

This is kind of surprising, but it probably shouldn’t be. Smoking has almost always been cool. It is only within the last 30 years or so, after people realized how harmful* smoking is, that it became passe.

*Personally, and I have no scientific evidence to back this up, I think the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes have been exaggerated, but that’s pretty much an inarguable point. It’s easy to demonstrate that smoking is unhealthy, but impossible to demonstrate that it is not as unhealthy as “we’ve been led to believe.”

The question is, What does this mean? And how did smoking become cool again?

I think the answer to the last question is pretty obvious. Smoking became cool the same way anything becomes cool — cool people are seen doing it. In this case, that cool person is Barack Obama.

Everything Obama does is cool

Everything Obama does is cool

Before Obama, the coolest known smoker was Colin Ferrell, and he’s actually incredibly lame. The smoking is part of his constructed persona, and, therefore, worthy of ridicule.

This is not the case with Obama, whose constructed persona is totally elitist. Maybe the smoking is the exception that proves the rule with him, but I doubt it. At first, I think it was an endearing flaw, and Obama would address it with that huge toothy grin of his and sort of marginalize it be sheer force of personality. It was cool, the way he did that. And as a result, his smoking was cool. It makes him seem like he could go rogue at any time, like, if somebody crossed him, he’d just eliminate Uganda with that big toothy grin and his force of personality.

If you’re Phillip Morris, can you think of anyone else in the world you’d rather have as a known smoker? Who combines the coolness and the influence of Barack Obama? Nobody. You’re No. 2 choice is probably George Clooney, and that’s a distant, distant second.

The great thing for the tobacco companies is that they didn’t even need that much help. Not only are cigarettes highly addictive, they’re also inherently cool (or at least inherently American) to begin with. They’ve always carried a whiff of independence, rebellion, free-spiritedness.

But only for the last 20 years or so, cigarette smoking has come with connotations of poverty, lack of discipline and poor hygiene.

I think Barack Obama has changed that. How’s that for change we can believe in?

What it’s like on the beat: A photographic journey

Maybe this is interesting to other people. Maybe nobody cares. Either way, it’s my blog, and I’ll do what I want.

So, thanks to the ace photography of The Capital-Journal’s Ann Williamson, we have extensive documentation of what it was like to cover the Orange Bowl and the NCAA Tournament.

For fun, I add captions.

Who are the five greatest rappers ever?

Me: Who are the five greatest rappers ever?

This is in Detroit, I’m pretty sure the day before Kansas played Davidson in the Elite Eight. Unlike during the regular season, the locker rooms are open for certain periods of time during the NCAA Tournament, allowing people like me in there to ask Cole Aldrich about rappers for what became the most-commented-on blog post in Capital-Journal history.

The good part is that all the players are available, and you kind of just walk up to them and start talking. Most of the conversations are on the record, but some, like the one I’m having with Cole in this photo, are just B.S. sessions. For beat guys, it’s a good chance to have a little bit of real human interaction with these guys. I don’t know for sure if it ultimately makes much of a difference in the way these guys react to us, but I think it does. I think they feel more comfortable talking to us because of the familiarity, which is good.

I’m not sure the players enjoy this all that much, although they’re usually in a fairly good mood, particularly the ones that don’t get interviewed very often.

A gangbang.

A gang bang.

This is what’s known in our business as a gang bang. Nobody likes gang bangs, but most of the time, it’s the only way to get the quotes because, unlike in the (occasionally) free-flowing NCAA Tournament locker rooms, we have such limited access to the players.

We call them “gang bangs,” because reporters are crass people.

This is us gang-banging Aqib Talib in Miami about a week before the Orange Bowl. I don’t recall asking Aqib a question that day.

Mangino is free!

Mangino is free!

Here is KU football coach Mark Mangino escaping the media beast in Miami. As you can see, it is not necessary to dress nicely in order to be a sportswriter.

Taking in Kansas State vs. Wisconsin, and not working(!)

Taking in Kansas State vs. Wisconsin, and not working(!)

I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it a perk of the job, but one of the nice respites is that your press credential gets you into all of the games at a particular tournament site. This was in Omaha, where KU and K-State were both playing. I believe Kansas had already played that day, meaning the KU media (from left to right: me in the blue, Ryan Greene of the Lawrence Journal-World, Tom Keegan of the LJW, some hosers) were free to watch and scoff at the poor bastards that had to cover Kansas State-Wisconsin.

Leon Liebl of Kansas City’s NBC affiliate looks especially delighted.

This was hilarious, because, since we were right behind the Cats’ bench, we heard everything Frank Martin was saying. Frank was not pleased with poor Jacob Pullen at the time. Or ever, really.

“I’ve got no problem not putting you back in the game,” he said at one point.

The downside of open locker rooms.

The downside of open locker rooms.

Open locker rooms are awesome … except when you have a question you really need to ask of a specific player. Like, for example, Brandon Rush or Mario Chalmers or Darrell Arthur and not (far left) Cole Aldrich.

This was at Sprint Center in Kansas City after KU had won a thriller of a Big 12 title game over Texas. One of the best-played games I’ve ever covered. Both teams were on some super-human plane.

That’s me in the green on the right, trying to extract a personality from Mario Chalmers. I failed. Everybody did. We always did. His personality is only a rumor at this point.

The photographers are obviously pretty excited about the Big 12 trophy sitting alone in the middle of the floor. Somebody should have used that as a metaphor for Kansas’ boredom at winning Big 12 titles. It would have worked well, since KU would later find out it was a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

As you can see, it is not necessary to be in peak physical condition in order to be a sportswriter.

Getting Sherron quotage, just because hes there.

Getting Sherron quotage, just because he's there.

Because there was nothing else to do, I stuck my recorder into the Sherron Collins gang bang. I eventually asked him the same rappers question I asked Cole, but I don’t think Sherron really wanted to think about it.

Since we were in Detroit, I asked him about Eminem.

“Once upon a time in my life, I was an Eminem fan,” Collins said. “But, you know, I’ve kinda grown out of it a little bit.”

My good buddy Obie, the androgenous Orange Bowl mascot

My good buddy Obie, The Androgenous Orange Bowl Mascot.

Obie, The Androgenous Orange Bowl Mascot, is also the Ubiquitous Orange Bowl Mascot. It turns up everywhere, including to Kansas’ beach party on Miami Beach.

This was a private party, but they let the media in there so that we’ll take pictures and write about how awesome the Orange Bowl is. It works.

As you can see, you don’t necessarily have to dress the part to go to Miami Beach as a sportswriter.

Its a long season.

It's a long season.

It was only December but a long layover in Atlanta, on top of all the work I had done and was going to have to do in advance of the Orange Bowl, was taking its toll.

You never really stop writing.

You never really stop writing.

Here, I’m working on what we call a notebook. It’s — imagine this — a collection of notes. Newspapers use these to serve two primary purposes:

1) To allow writers to report things that did not fit into any other stories.

2) To fill space and have “a presence.” For example, we wanted to make sure that, for about two weeks leading up to the game, we wanted to have some kind of Orange Bowl “presence” in each day’s paper, which only means that we wanted something in the paper that was at least vaguely connected to the bowl or Kansas football. Thus, I had to write this bad notebook at KCI.

Even better, my bad computer’s wireless was all jacked up, so I had to use Ann’s machine. Note: This would later come into play the night of the national championship game.

Before the title game.

Before the title game.

As you can tell, by the time April 7 came around, there wasn’t much enthusiasm left among the Kansas media. Just look at our faces. We look like we all just finished a four-day bender with Nicole Richie.

Nonetheless, we had the wherewithall to recognize that we were at the Final Four, and that was pretty cool, and that we may not ever cover another one. You just never know.

Later that night, my #@$%&^ wireless went down again, right on deadline. So I had to transcribe what was on my computer to Kevin Haskin’s computer, word-by-word, in order to file my story.

Incidentally, a couple of secrets.

1. I wrote this story before the game even started.

2. I wrote this story on Mario Chalmers because Ronnie Chalmers was the only person in the KU locker room I could get close enough to quote. From start to finish, there’s no way I spent more than 11 minutes on this story.

3. My game story, I had to file as soon as the game ended, meaning that when Mario Chalmers’ made his miracle, I had to do a select-all, delete on the story I was writing for a KU loss. I remember the “KU loses” story was going to wonder if maybe defense doesn’t win championships, after all.

There was a lot of foul language flying around on press row when that shot went in.

Hate mail

Part of being a journalist is getting letters like this.

Part of being a journalist is getting letters like this.

I thought it would be fun to go back through my Capital-Journal inbox and pull out some hate mail. I delete some of it, but I try to save a lot of it, too. I don’t really know why. There is something theraputic about reading old hate mail. Lest you think I’m a masochist, I save some of the love letters, too.

Hate mail is one of the great perks of being a journalist. If you’re an accountant or an anesthesiologist or a mechanic or a lawyer, you don’t get people you’ve never met sending you letters about how much you suck at your job. And that all the other anesthesiologists you know are better than you. And that you probably got your job through fraudulent means.

What a treat.

Anyway, let’s start with this one from a guy named Bill Akard, Jan. 21, 2008:

Dear Tully,

Is Tully gender specific? I have never read anything by you before and do not know whether I am addressing a male or female. I guess that is all beside the point because your writing certainly is not “reader specific”. You shouldn’t have wasted the paper in which your blurb (it was much too brief, ambiguous and fluff oriented to be called an article) was written. Half-hearted efforts such as this are why I only read the Capital-Journal about twice a month.

Kind Regards,

Bill Akard

This is my response:

I’m a man. And I don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, I’m sorry you didn’t like it.

Tully Corcoran
Kansas beat writer
The Capital-Journal
(785) 295-5652

And his retort:

Dear Tully,

I respect the fact that you returned my email. I realize that it cannot always be easy to “put yourself out there” for every Tom, Dick and Harry to take pot shots at. Let me try to elaborate slightly as to why I did not care for your article. I thought, for one, you took on (for the KU faithful) a somewhat cavalier tone. You made it sound as if it was a given that the Hawks would/should win at Missouri. It is always difficult to win on the road in the Big XII and perhaps doubly so whenever playing against a heated rival … as emotion plays such a big role.

You also made reference to “… the 13 or so people watching on ESPNU”. The manner in which you phrased that almost took the “Jayhawk Nation” to task when, the people whom should have been taken to task are those who made the decision to televise this solely on ESPNU. Viewers rarely take kindly to “broadcast blackmail.”

I also took some exception to the title. On some levels it was a “sloppy outing” and we did win ugly; however, I don’t really feel that you did a very good job of explaining why. Both teams’ defense as well as the officiating had a hand in the ungainly flow of this game. I do not know all of the factors. Perhaps you only had a few minutes to meet a deadline. Perhaps you had very limited space. I have told you what I did not particularly care about this article … now, I guess I’ll have to read a few more articles that you have written to see if you take on a more professional tone in the near future. Good luck on future beat assignments.

Kind Regards,

Bill

This one was fun because the guy seemed disarmed by the fact that I responded to his e-mail at all. I always respond. I’ve made a point of that, whether they’re nice or mean, because I know how infuriating it is to be ignored, especially when you’re already angry.

Here’s one I got from Leonardo DiCaprio, of all people, who wrote me at 3:24 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2007:

Having known you for some time now, I woud really like
to know who you conned to get a job as sports writer
for CJ. Because we all know you did something to get
that job, whatever it may have been, it had nothing to
do with your writing abilites because I don’t see any.
Yeah yeah, you went to KU, so that’s your lone
credential to write about KU football right?

Your leads on the whole are probably the absolute
worst leads I have ever read in my life. The overall
stories are usually just as bad. Go back to writing in
the Argo section for the Review, that’s were you
belong. I will plead to the top level admin. at CJ
that they do not allow you to write KU basketball
stories. Now that would be an absolute disaster on the
highest scales possible. You couldn’t even hold Ryan
Wood’s jock strap. Peace out.

And my response:

Leo, I’m sorry to hear that, because I’ve always thought you were a terrific actor.

I liked that one because it came from somebody who evidently knows me, or at least knows me well enough to know that I went to Washburn, but not well enough to know that I never wrote a word for the Argo section of The Review (which is the student newspaper there). I also enjoyed the extreme cowardice, here, in making up an e-mail address with a false name just to tell me how bad I am at writing, and writing that e-mail at the level of an autistic fourth grader.

Also, although I did go to KU for a short time, that has absolutely nothing to do with my qualifications to be the Kansas beat writer. It doesn’t work like that. For example, the last two KU beat writers at the Kansas City Star went to Baylor and Michigan, respectively. The Lawrence Journal-World’s KU football beat writer went to Missouri. The Kansas City Star’s K-State beat writer is from Vermont.

Here’s one from Andrew Klieber, Jan. 13, 2009:

do you even watch basketball or know anything about it?  this article is ignorant?  you should have gotten that from the ku players after their reactions to your dumb questions.  obviously you have never played and haven’t been around ksu-ku games very long.  ksu is a solid team this year, not great but pretty good, ku is not the world beaters you act like they are, but you should know that since ksu is the only team that lost players last year. andrew kleiber
read what you write.  you sound like an ignorant sports writer that knows nothing about it.

And my response:
Andrew,You’re way too sensitive. The whole point of my article was that Kansas State has played KU pretty well in recent years and therefore the KU players respect K-State’s program. Try looking past the end of your nose.

As for this:

“ku is not the world beaters you act like they are, but you should know that since ksu is the only team that lost players last year.”

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, here, or where, in my writing, you’ve detected that I’m making KU out to be a world beater, but Kansas lost five NBA draft picks and two other players off last year’s team.

Finally, not that it has anything to do with the way I do my job, but I played basketball in high school, lived in Kansas most of my life and have been covering KU in some capacity since 2004, the point being that I’ve been around this rivalry. I covered the game in which K-State snapped its 31-game losing streak to Kansas, and I also covered the game in which the Wildcats snapped a 24-game losing streak in Manhattan. And believe me, the KU team that lost to K-State in Lawrence in 2006 did not respect K-State the way the current KU team does.

Thanks for reading,

Tully Corcoran
Kansas beat writer
The Capital-Journal
(785) 295-5652

I never heard from this guy again.